There is a new aura around the club. Not a new wow! factor – to me that never goes away – but a toughness, a steeliness, something that was not necessarily there before. Or actually it was, just subdued by other events. Perhaps the determination of the team to maintain clean sheets has enhanced that notion, a return to the Arsenal Way of defending. A toughness with players as well; the supine negotiations with stars of yesteryear have been usurped and Theo Walcott is feeling the pinch. The iron fist in a velvet glove.
The long and short of it is that Walcott is not going to start a game until he signs a new deal. Some had preferred not to confront that notion when raised previously but Arsène’s lukewarm denial yesterday lends itself readily to that scenario. Of course it depends on which news outlet is carrying the story with that being the focus in this morning’s Daily Express although a more positive view is projected by Daily Mirror storytellers.
The change of mentality over this negotiation is telling; Wenger noted that the club could afford to go to the end of Walcott’s contract if they so choose. Presuming no-one came in with a suitable offer in January, of course. It also suggests that nobody did in the summer. Chelsea and tomorrow’s opponents, Manchester City were prime movers and are minded to wait until Walcott will cost them nothing.
More importantly, the impact of Walcott’s absence on the pitch is not being felt. The performances have been, on the whole, excellent to the extent that the England international is not missed as much as he might have been. But it is early days in the season, too soon to sound the death knell on an Arsenal career. And more to the point, should Arsenal sell him?
The issue again is about valuing a player’s worth. No two players are the same so to claim this is the same as van Persie or Nasri is too simplistic. Walcott’s value to the club is impacted through being a homegrown player, he eases a problem. On the pitch, he can be a potent attacking weapon but the growing maturity of Oxlade-Chamberlain has put Walcott under pressure internationally and at club level; their futures seem intertwined with the younger of the pair having the better of current exchanges.
Potentially though money is a sideshow. Walcott has long stated his desire to play as a central striker and there is little indication that Arsène is minded to fulfill that dream. There can be a change of mind and the advertising for the Capital One Cup suggests that Theo is going to start that match, reducing his involvement tomorrow to the bench at best. It is hard for Walcott to switch position at Arsenal; the club has signed Giroud and Podolski, capable centre forwards, as well as having a fluidity in attack which allows Gervinho – favoured choice at the moment – to drift in from the right. Learning your trade and usurping experienced players is not an easy task.
Of course, there is always the possibility that Walcott’s absence is being caused by Wenger retraining him, allowing the England international to learn his trade away from the public. A strange and highly unlikely scenario, one which requires Theo to be willing to pause his career for a year and threaten his spot in the national squad. No, I don’t believe it either. Altogether though, this is a remarkable fall from grace, another depression which has pock-marked Walcott’s career. You sense that the player needs some stability, a period of consistency to regain some semblance of regularity in playing. There is no doubt that he is talented but it seems that his worth – financially and as a footballer - is somewhat different to that placed on him by the club.
A year is nothing though, ask Jack Wilshere. I am sure it felt like a living Hell at times for the youngster but the sunlight is seeping back into his career with the resumption of full training. Too soon for a first team return with the manager willing and able to wait a while before unleashing Wilshere on the Premier League. Another reason perhaps, for the club playing hardball with Walcott, is the depth that Wilshere’s return – and to a lesser extent Frimpong’s; how to accommodate everyone in midfield and attack. Great expectations were placed on Jack’s shoulders and I hope that some restraint is shown on his return; after all, who will he replace?
In the long term, he has the ability to fill the Arteta and Cazorla roles. His quick passing and movement draw comparison with the more advanced of the Spanish duo but to my mind, he will be more influential in the former’s deeper lying role. It is a prospect which we should relish but that is the future and we have seen how long it can take for a player who has been out for a sustained spell, to return to full fitness, to expected levels. We have seen how wrong it can go when the pressure is increased too soon; patience by the club and support is required.