It has been over two months since stories first emerged about the difficulties surrounding Theo Walcott’s contract negotiations, yet, with almost a third of the Premier League season gone, there is still no indication that a deal has been agreed between the club and the Arsenal striker. Talks over extending the 23-year-old’s contract apparently hinge not on money, but on the very word just used to describe him: striker.
Throughout the faltering negotiations, Walcott has insisted that his wages are not the issue. Rather it is a question of his role in the squad, or, more specifically, on the pitch itself, that lies behind no new terms being finalised. Walcott has pressed to be played through the middle for months, but his bit part involvement in Arsenal’s season to date will surely not have convinced him that his wishes will soon be granted.
A common opinion is that Walcott is not able to play in a central striking position for Arsenal because of deficiencies in his technique. It is clear that he has not developed to the levels that those at Arsenal thought he would reach when he was signed in 2006. In the six years he has been at Arsenal, the England international has made over 150 appearances, yet found the net only 28 times.
At his best, Walcott can be devastatingly unplayable. Frightening pace is undoubtedly his key asset, and over the last few years he has put in memorable performances for club and country. Many will recall his superb hat-trick against Croatia in 2008, or his quick-fire brace in Arsenal’s 5-2 demolition of Spurs in last season’s North London derby at the Emirates.
However, in truth, these performances for Arsenal have been too infrequent. He is criticised by those who regularly watch the Gunners for solely using his pace to get past opponents and, more condemningly, for his poor decision making in the final third. Walcott could never be lambasted for being a selfish player, as frequently he shies away from striking at goal, choosing instead to pass to a team-mate.
It would be naïve solely to praise this trait in his game. From one perspective it is unselfishness, but from another it is passing responsibility. While being unselfish is a highly desirable asset for a footballer, the top strikers in the world all display a similar ruthless streak when presented with a chance to get a shot away; something that Walcott does not seem to possess.
Arsene Wenger has stated many times that he holds hope that Walcott can emulate his idol Thierry Henry. Like Walcott, Henry was initially deployed as a wide player under Wenger, before moving inside and becoming one of the most fearsome strikers in world football. However, Henry was a consistently Arsenal’s leading scorer during his time at Arsenal, whereas Walcott has yet to reach double figures in a Premier League season for the club, despite playing all but three games in the competition last season.
Walcott possesses Henry’s lightening speed, but has yet to find the Frenchman’s clinical calmness in front of goal; a fact exemplified by his glaring miss in the final minutes of Arsenal’s recent Champions League draw with Shalke 04, a chance that Henry would have surely slotted home. At his peak, Henry was almost guaranteed to finish when through on goal with just the keeper to beat. Walcott has shown increasing composure in recent matches, yet is still a long way from the unruffled consistency in front of goal that is needed to become a regular goal scorer.
It is easy to be too critical of Walcott, and regularly the young forward is condemned to an unfair extent. A lot of the frustration that emerges in criticism of him stems from a realisation of the promise and potential he does show. Walcott may be inconsistent, but it is clear to see that he is agonisingly close to being the potent attacking threat many long for him to become. His potential is indubitable, but whether or not he can fulfil such promise at Arsenal is becoming more and more unlikely due to the style in which the Gunners play.
As football grows increasingly consumed by possession, the role of a striker that plays off the shoulder of the last defender looks progressively more threatened. Particularly at a club like Arsenal, where the footballing philosophy centres around keeping hold of the ball and playing chiefly in the opposition’s half. When sides play against Arsenal they frequently sit deep and restrict space, looking to get forward on the counter attack where they can expose Arsenal’s persistent defensive frailties. Consequently, a striker such as summer signing Olivier Giroud is a more suitable candidate for the central forward role as his strength in and around the penalty area can create opportunities for the Gunners’ wealth of talented attacking midfielders.
Arsenal’s number 14 can be a blistering attacking threat, but in the current Arsenal system he is much more effective when played out on the flank where he has more space to use his dangerous pace. Walcott has frequently stated he would be disappointed if he had to leave Arsenal, but his best chance at moving centrally as a striker may be found by moving on from the Emirates.