Why Did Arsenal Signing Theo Walcott Take so Long?

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistJanuary 28, 2013

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 23:  Theo Walcott of Arsenal in action during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and West Ham United at Emirates Stadium on January 23, 2013 in London, England.  (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Theo Walcott's three goals in his last three games have eased the concerns of those who felt his production may falter since signing his new deal. However, it does beg the question, why did it take so long for Walcott to sign?

Protracted negotiations have become an annual fixture at Arsenal. Fans have become infuriated by the club's seeming habit of leaving things too late.

However, timing was the least of the issues with Walcott. Amid his negotiations, there was a manager caught between wanting to stem the tide of player exists. A manager also attempting to save a season in danger of spiralling out of control.

There was also the player himself, a frustrating, inconsistent, yet talented youngster—one seeking a new position to go with his fresh terms.

Walcott's contract demands may have been one ultimatum too many for the long-suffering Arsene Wenger. He had endured similar situations with the likes of Emmanuel Adebayor, Samir Nasri and Robin van Persie.

The cycle of stars leaving Arsenal every summer needed to be stopped. As is so often the case for those under pressure, Wenger's first thought was defiance.

He opted to take a hard line with Walcott, something many felt he had failed to do with van Persie. In order to halt the procession of disgruntled players, Wenger would make an example of Walcott.

Benching him and showing a willingness to let his contract expire, without being forced into a quick sale, would suffice. That's just the situation Walcott found himself in at the start of the season.

While Gervinho and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain took that right wing position that irked him so much, Walcott languished among the substitutes. Wenger's hard-line approach appeared to work, as the team didn't really seem to miss Walcott.

Results to begin the campaign were solid, if not quite spectacular. Gervinho saw time on the wing and through the middle. He initially flourished in the hybrid forward role Walcott obviously craved.

Then, cracks began to appear in the Wenger master plan. First came Walcott's key goal in the 3-1 victory at West Ham back in October.

He had entered the fray with the scores level and made that rare thing for Walcott: a decisive contribution. Wenger had needed him to gain the advantage in a close game.

However, it was still not enough to allow Walcott to resume starter status. Yet, things tipped in his favour as the roof promptly fell in on what had looked like a promising season.

That's because in the middle of Arsenal's tumbling form, something happened that Wenger and very few others would have anticipated. Walcott suddenly became a match-winner.

The Gunners struggles had presented him with an opportunity to prove his worth and strengthen his demands. He seized that opportunity in the Capital One Cup thriller at Reading.

Walcott's three goals and three assists settled a 7-5 classic in favour of Arsenal. Just like at West Ham, Walcott had proved decisive.

It was a landmark moment for a player who had previously only impressed in brief spells during his career. That hat-trick brought Walcott back into the team and altered the entire dynamic of his contract negotiations.

The conversation was no longer about whether or not he merited improved terms. It shifted toward his best position.

The dilemma over his position had been a thorny issue throughout Walcott's Arsenal career. Now it became the instrument used to bend the club to his will.

He had long lobbied for a start as a central striker. That excellent brace against Birmingham City on that fateful February afternoon in 2008 seemed to show a future star striker in the making.

Certainly, when Wenger signed him from Southampton in 2006, Walcott's future seemed clear. His combination of pace and neat finishing indicated Wenger had found the successor to Nicolas Anelka and Thierry Henry.

However, for so long, it appeared that was the wrong guess. Wenger was attempting to repeat past success with Walcott. Yet, it wasn't an Anelka/Henry clone he wanted it was a Marc Overmars/Freddie Ljungberg successor.

That's why Walcott was consigned wide for so long. Indeed, there were plenty of moments when Wenger's judgement had merit.

That mazy run against Liverpool in the UEFA Champions League in 2008. The goal against Villarreal in the same competition in 2009. The problem was that for every good moment, Walcott offered as much doubt that he could succeed at the highest level.

His unhappiness with his position was unfairly seized upon as the reason why. After all, it fit nicely with the arguments of those who feel Wenger is everything that's wrong at Arsenal.

Mounting pressure and a series of dismal results appeared to force Wenger's hand. He gave Walcott his coveted start through the middle. It's debatable whether Wenger would have relented had he not been facing such intense criticism.

This was the perfect olive branch and the true breakthrough in Walcott's contract negotiations. Letting him operate as a striker came when Arsenal struggles were most obvious allowed both parties to save face.

Walcott had been given a glimpse of his Arsenal future. It was also tangible proof that his manager was as good as his word when it came to letting him play as a central striker.

Wenger ramped up the pressure even further on Walcott by announcing new contracts for a quintet of young British talents. Against this backdrop, Wenger had all but ensured that if Walcott didn't sign, the player would be seen as the obstacle, not the club and its policies.

After all, if a player as talented as Wilshere trusted Arsenal to meet his ambitions, why couldn't Walcott? He had been played where he wanted and seen his peers commit to the club. Wenger took away all the reasons for Walcott not to sign.

For his part, Walcott could feel as though he had gained his own victory. He had won the right to showcase his potential in his preferred position. He had also proved that he did indeed merit his demands.

Walcott's contract signing was a significant moment in Arsenal's recent history. It demonstrated that Wenger is still able to convince players their ambitions can be met at the club.

It also revealed a certain amount of flex in Arsenal's policies toward contract negotiations. Wenger gave Walcott chances through the middle when positive results were being demanded.

He showed a willingness to gamble and compromise that not many have associated with the reserved Frenchman. Wenger proved he could make allowances if it meant keeping a star player.

That negotiations took so long to play out should come as little surprise. On one side was a player with his own ruthless ambition to finally prove his worth and have that worth acknowledged.

On the other was Wenger, football's ultimate long-view strategist. In the end, the patience of the man Sir Alex Ferguson claimed "could run a poker school" won out.

Arsenal are now reaping the rewards and may have just have set a vital precedent for future negotiations.


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