By Chris Davie
Another week passes and Theo Walcott delivers yet another reminder to Arsene Wenger and the Arsenal board to speed up his stagnant contract talks.
Saturday’s derby was only Walcott’s third start in the Premier League this season, but the 23-year-old provided a reason for Arsenal to wrap up negotiations before the January transfer window as he netted his third of the domestic campaign and teed up Per Mertesacker for his fourth assist this term.
Walcott’s goal against Tottenham came from a central position, an instinctive finish which should be in the armoury of any competent striker, while the dribble and cross for Mertesacker’s equaliser showcased the England international’s improved proficiency from a wide position.
Past criticism of Walcott has usually centred around his inconsistency, but this season he has delivered in the 416 minutes of Premier League football he has played, regardless of whether he has started or come off the bench.
Against Southampton in September, Walcott was able to get on the scoresheet within the 15 minutes he was granted as a substitute, while again, after coming off the bench, Walcott put Arsenal ahead at West Ham before setting up Santi Cazorla who put the tie beyond reach of Sam Allardyce’s men.
In Arsenal’s last three games in all competitions, Walcott’s started all of them and has three assists and two goals to show for his efforts. January looms – and it is stick or twist for both player and club.
With Arsenal’s interest in Wilfried Zaha likely to develop into a January bid for the Crystal Palace starlet, it could suggest Wenger eyes Walcott as a central figure in his attack. Alternatively, it could also mean the club are bracing for another high-profile departure.
Walcott has been vocal about his desire to be handed a run as a striker and while his overall return has been solid this year, there are still question marks over his composure in front of goal. Against Tottenham for instance, he spurned two promising chances before eventually hitting his low strike past Hugo Lloris.
With Olivier Giroud now finding his feet in the Premier League after a nervy introduction, Walcott’s opportunities to spearhead Arsenal’s attack could be restricted further in the next few weeks. And as long as Wenger resists the urge to give Walcott a series of games as a striker, there is little way of telling whether his own claims regarding his best position are accurate.
There is also the problem of Walcott’s £100,000-a-week salary demands. Arsenal’s refusal to match the request is justified in that it will prevent the inspirational Cazorla, Lukas Podolski and Jack Wilshere from asking for similar deals. There is also little sense in a club offering such a huge contract to a player who has been used on a limited basis this season.
Walcott has options in January with Juventus and Liverpool both interested in a cut-price move for his services. The England international’s versatility makes him an interesting proposition, particularly for Brendan Rodgers, and a hunger to lead an attack could be appeased at Anfield where striking options are severely limited.
If Walcott wants to try his luck with the Serie A champions, he also has a strong case of staking a claim for a role as a striker since he offers an alternative to Mirko Vucinic and Fabio Quagliarella. However, Juventus typically operate with wing backs, so a spot on the flanks is out of the question and playing time could be restricted.
A move to Liverpool, however, despite the probable lack of Champions League football next season, may suit Walcott more than a switch overseas. In Rodgers’ system, Walcott has the chance to either flank Luis Suarez in a supporting position, or, for his own career fulfilment, front Liverpool’s attack. With Andy Carroll’s future looking bleak at Anfield and Fabio Borini recovering from a broken foot, Suarez remains Rodgers’ only senior striker, therefore Walcott could provide a bargain method of bolstering his front-line options.
Staying at Arsenal is unlikely to allow Walcott to earn the wage he has been holding out for, while the frustration over his own role in Wenger’s system can be felt in every post-match interview. “My time will come,” he told talkSPORT on Sunday. “I’ve just got to be patient, but like a say, I want to play up front, that’s my best position.”
This is his seventh season in the Premier League. If Wenger’s yet to utilise him in his best position, Walcott’s prospects of emulating a former Arsenal great, who also wore the number 14 shirt, look bleak.