The next van Persie?
In two weeks time Theo Walcott will be able to sign a pre-contract agreement with a club outside the Premier League. In six months' time he will be allowed to leave for free and go to any club of his choosing.
There is a gloomy sense of deja vu hanging around the Emirates as this saga unfurls. In seasons' gone by contract expiration looming large are the background of Samir Nasri and Robin van Persie’s exits.
It has come to a point where a line needs to be drawn. Theo Walcott is not the best player to play brinkmanship with the club, but if Arsenal fail to hold on to Walcott who will they be able to keep hold of? Jack Wilshere? Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain? Aaron Ramsey?
Everybody loses star players—it hurts morale and damages the first team—but the club is bigger than one player. When you start to struggle to hold onto simple first-team players, then you are in trouble.
Without being around the negotiation table, it is hard to know if this is about money, ambition or playing position.
If this is a power play led by the player's agent to get him an improved contract, then expect Theo to be playing in a different colors this time next year.
A club who has refused to break their infamously rigid wage structure to accommodate Nasri or van Persie are extremely unlikely do so for an inconsistent player yet to prove his potential.
Walcott provides enough ammunition to both camps who are convinced he is one good season away from breaking through or equally convinced he is just a speed merchant who lacks a “footballing brain.”
Should Walcott Play Up Front?
Of course this may all be entirely more honorable and Walcott genuinely wants to play through the middle and doesn’t want to commit to playing the next five years out wide. Although of his list of potential suitors, none look likely to play in up front either.
That Walcott is quick is beyond doubt. Playing out wide he has the beating of almost every full-back in the league in terms of raw pace. The feeling is, though, that if you just show him down the wing, he doesn’t have a trick or a good enough cross to be much of a threat.
Through the middle his speed and the associated fear he will get behind the back four, push the defensive line back toward their own goals opening up space for Wilshire and Santi Cazorla in midfield.
Playing such a physically unintimidating man at the tip of your attack isn’t without its drawbacks however, especially in the Premier League. For all his talent and potential, Walcott is no Lionel Messi.
Whatever the true motivations, are Arsenal are being held to ransom again? Nasri demanded more money; they said no. Van Persie demanded an instant show of the club's ambition; they said no. Walcott is potentially asking for something much more serious. He is asking to pick the team.
He isn’t saying he will never play out wide again, but that he should play in the center more often than not.
Walcott doesn’t look completely comfortable on the wing, but nobody has seen enough of him to know if he can play up front for a trophy-winning team.
The risk for Arsenal is that if they give in and end up being bullied by lesser players than they have already let leave. On the flip side if they can’t keep hold of Walcott, who they can keep hold of?
Arsene Wenger needs to keep Walcott, not because of his importance to the team, but because of what he represents. An already disgruntled fanbase are likely to become a lot more vocal if the Emirates exit remains busier than the entrance.