The chess game that is Theo Walcott’s contract negotiations with Arsenal Football Club developed further on Monday night as manager Arsene Wenger gave the striker his Christmas wish and played him as a centre-forward for 90 minutes.
At the Madejski Stadium against Reading, Walcott scored the final goal in the Gunners’ 5-2 demolition of the Premier League’s basement side.
If the 23-year-old winger’s contract negotiations are a chess match, Arsene Wenger just whispered “check” in the Englishman’s ear – he granted the striker his wish and gave him his first start as a striker.
He didn’t disappoint (nor did he set the world on fire) as he netted the final goal of the game to put it beyond doubt for his team.
I suspect he was preferred to Olivier Giroud on fitness grounds, having both returned from minor injuries but, nonetheless, Wenger gave Walcott the nod ahead of the benched Frenchman and the most decorated and recognizable striker of the trio, Lukas Podolski.
Having assessed his performance as a striker, I came to the conclusion that he would be unlikely to get the nod to start up front with any regularity for any other Premier League team.
According to speculation, he’s interesting the likes of Liverpool, Chelsea, and Manchester United who will likely all bid for him in January, but I can’t see him ever featuring as a striker for any of those clubs – I certainly don’t think Sir Alex Ferguson would entertain the idea with the strike-force he has.
Nor can I see Walcott being preferred ahead of Fernando Torres at Stamford Bridge – he’d likely have to fight for his position on the wing, never mind up front.
Brendan Rodgers might give him an opportunity to fill in for Luis Suarez here and there but he’d be considered cover at best. He wouldn’t play there in the big games.
In fact, I’m inclined to suggest the only manager patient and, perhaps, foolish enough to even entertain the idea is Arsene Wenger. Only under Le Professor could Walcott even hope to have a fighting chance of developing into a Premier League striker and, if he’s smart and that’s really what he wants, Theo will recognize that Wenger is the master when it comes to converting wingers into strikers.
No other manager would give him the time of day and it would be a great shame if Walcott does himself, his manager and his club a disservice by engineering a move in January.
Wenger is the Premier League’s dreamer – he’s a philosopher for better or worse – and only he would dream of playing an inconsistent winger like Walcott, or Gervinho, for that matter, through the middle of his attack. Only he would give the player the opportunity and put faith in his ability, putting his own neck on the line.
I have a sneaking suspicion that when Walcott claimed he wanted to play as striker, he never really thought Wenger would submit to his demands – he probably aimed to make his position at the club even more tenuous by handing Wenger an ultimatum like that.
But Wenger called his bluff on Monday – Walcott wants to appear to the fans as if he’s the injured party, victim to Arsenal Football Club’s frugality. His wage demands are reportedly £100,000 per week and Arsenal have offered him £75,000. He knows the club and the manager are under pressure to avoid selling off another star player to a rival.
If he really wants to stay, as he claims, and the manager really does desire to keep him there, as I have no doubt he does, Walcott should take the gift of a chance to play up front with both hands and settle for £80,000 (no more than he’s worth) and laugh all the way to the bank.
However, I suspect that Walcott now has his eyes on pasture new – his excellent performances this season have had the mark of a player putting himself in the shop window ahead of the January sales and, I suspect, much like his former teammate Robin van Persie, he would prefer to play for Manchester United.
If it’s about money, he can probably smell Abramovich’s billions in the breeze coming off the river. Sadly, I think Walcott will refuse any new contract offer from Arsenal – probably even if it meets his demands and I think he may live to regret that if he truly does want to play as a striker. But I have a hunch he’d rather be a rich and decorated winger.
image: © Ronnie Macdonald