Theo Walcott's contract and Arsenal's protective wings

Clive Mason

Theo Walcott's demands to be played through the middle make sense; Arsenal's wide positions are nurseries for untrusted players.

"I completely rule out the transfer of Villa during the winter window. He is ours and we need him."

That's the only quote in the Guardian's article proclaiming the imminence of Theo Walcott's new Arsenal contract. It's from Barcelona president Sandro Rosell; it's about David Villa. This isn't to say that Walcott won't sign a new contract -- he might (I suspect he won't) -- only to point out that we don't really know anything. This makes reading about Theo Walcott's contract boring; it leads onto some discussion of Arsenal's wage structure and/or financial doping, which can be interesting but generic "will he won't he" is not interesting. Ever.

Walcott's "will he, won't he" does have a slightly unique twist, though, and this makes it a bit less boring, interesting almost. Not that the interest has anything to do with Theo Walcott himself; he is too blandly attractive a commercial proposition to be actually interesting (if I'm reminded one more time about his commercial value to Arsenal in the far East I will go properly Partridge postal).

The interesting thing about the Walcott contract saga is the positional caveat on which negotiations have supposedly stalled. This is generally talked away as financial brinksmanship on the part of Walcott's "people"; it's all about the money, goes the (melodic) counter-claim. It can be dismissed, too, by appeal to the player's own inadequacies as an attacking focal point. I have sympathy with this view: Walcott can't pass and, as a result, is not really viable in that position in Arsenal's current system. He also scores lots of goals from a wide position. Olivier Giroud is a better looking centre-forward. But arguing as such would get me dangerously close to talking about Walcott himself and I don't want to do that.

For me, Walcott has become a sort of Arsenal-specific Jean-Marc Bosman, a player notable more for what he exposed than for what he did*. Andrey Arshavin could have martyred himself in this way, but never complained enough to expose the issue; Aaron Ramsey should be concerned about his recent selections.

* Arsenal actually have two of these since Nicklas Bendtner's Paddy Powered boxer shorts became the test case against which every inadequate UEFA sanction will be upheld.

The issue Walcott exposes is, of course, Arsene Wenger's messing with two thirds of his offensive line (or 40 percent of his midfield, depending on your zonal and decimal predilections). Just as a school team coach will stick a certain demographic of keen but weedy teenager out wide where she/he will do the least damage, Wenger has turned the flanks into testing grounds for players who have failed to convince.

That Walcott's desire to play up front has exposed the ill-suited nature of Wenger's ideological, Barcelona-esque 4-3-3 to his actual squad. Walcott probably needs a 4-4-2 to function, and that has been well-documented. What has been less commented on, however, is the pointlessness of really any of Arsenal's players taking one of those wide positions.

On Sunday in the FA Cup, Arsenal started with Ramsey and Walcott either side of Giroud. Neither of them wants to play there. With half an hour remaining, Ramsey was replaced by Lukas Podolski. He doesn't want to play there either. And why would they?

The position seems to have no identifiable purpose in Wenger's selections. Since Samir Nasri left, the wide players' main role -- with the very exceptional occasions on which Gervinho plays properly, gets to the line and cuts it back -- is to stretch the play, and create space for the full-backs to overlap. Again with the exception of Gervinho (who can't be counted upon, and therefore doesn't really count), and possibly Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Arsenal have no specialist wide players -- yet they play two of them every week. Why?

I have no answer to this, only a theory, and, as always with Arsenal, it comes down to acquisitions. Such is the nature of the traditional Wenger signing, young/ unproven/unappreciated elsewhere/injury prone, that they do not inspire instant trust. Instead, they need a running ground, and Arsenal's squad is too fragile, small and similarly constituted for this to be in the reserves, League Cup or last half-hours of already secured games. In the absence of those established routes into first-team reliability, Wenger has had to create alternatives that, on most teams, are called the right and left wing. Arsenal have, essentially, built positions of semi-responsibility into their formation to protect players who are (rightly or wrongly) not deemed fully up to it. They are kept under the wing, as it were. The consequence of this is that the midfield three of Mikel Arteta, Santi Carzola and Jack Wilshere/Abou Diaby (which is objectively excellent) and the lone striker -- see Robin van Persie last season, and consider the almost instant importance of Giroud this -- have to shoulder a burden too heavy for their talents to yield the results they merit.

Of course, sometimes these wide players play well -- Podolski has scored seven "game changing" (equalizers of goals that put Arsenal ahead) this season, for instance -- and when they do Arsenal tend to look good, and to win. But often, they don't, and it doesn't really matter because they are so peripheral to the side's axis (midfield three, forward, full-back). Theo Walcott's contract discussions are interesting, then, because they put this issue forward; if he does want to play up front, then he wants responsibility, which he's not going to find out wide. Or, at least, not out wide at Arsenal.

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