Thirteen and a half years is a long time.
It’s longer than we’ve been at the Emirates. It’s longer than Daily Cannon has been online (wish us a happy 7th anniversary for Sunday, and watch out for an anniversary surprise!). It’s even longer than I’ve been with my Spurs fiancé, and that feels like a lifetime!
And yet, that’s how long Theo Walcott will have been at Arsenal Football Club by the expiry of his new contract in 2019.
I, for one, am thrilled.
Regular readers will know I am a huge fan of our pacy striker, a player who not only had incredible talent when he joined us back in January 2006 as a 16-year-old, but a player who has continued to work on that talent to become the player he is today.
Youth and experience are not mutually exclusive
Our longest serving player with 302 appearances to his name, Walcott has just committed his best years to the club and the exciting question now is not whether he’ll help us win trophies in that time, but how numerous they will be.
There has been a bit of noise today about the size of the contract – a whopping £140,000 a week is sizeable enough to match the very top earners in the Arsenal squad – and whether Walcott truly merits a salary to match the likes of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil.
It’s hard to compare Walcott and Ozil given that they are about as similar as two completely dissimilar things in a pod, but I wrote already this summer about how Walcott in many ways matches and even outstrips Alexis – not in all-round play, but in front of goal which is where we’re still sometimes found lacking.
Theo has 76 goals in his 302 games, at an average of 0.25 per game. However, one of the things he has consistently delivered since joining is regular improvements to his game. In the last three years, despite a serious injury, a consequent proliferation of substitute appearances and spending the majority of his time on the wing, he has scored 34 goals in 82 appearances at an average of 0.41 goals per game.
When you look at the impact of his injury and the ensuing substitute appearances, the statistics become even more impressive. In 2012/13 Walcott averaged 71.41 minutes in each game he played at 0.55 goals per 90, which dropped to 66.08 minutes per game with 0.52 goals per 90 minutes in 2013/14. So far so sensible – you would expect his return to go down if he’s only getting short stretches of games.
However, in 2014/15 Theo played around half the number of minutes in more games than 2013/14, averaging just 32.57 minutes per game yet delivering a return of 0.99 goals per 90. Clinical.
More than a one-trick speedster
His runs and pace have always been excellent – certainly they were the traits which Arsene Wenger most praised upon his arrival back in 2006 – and his improvement in front of goal is impressive for a player who our Managing Editor at Daily Cannon renamed “Oh Theo” for a brief spell. And there are small signs in recent months that he has added a few more tricks to his game and a greater willingness to take a man on without needing to be played in by someone else.
The other thing that makes a huge difference and for me makes his signing so exciting is his versatility. Earlier this season, fellow writer Paul Williams and I had a fairly epic debate about whether Theo or the Ox should be our right winger in the seasons ahead – I’m sure you can guess which side I was on. It’s a source of great delight to pop him a message each time Theo scores. However, the base premise of that debate was that we could only play one of them at a time as they play in the same position.
Since his return from injury, we have seen Walcott pop up on the left, the right and through the middle to significant success. More importantly, his ability to play fluidly between those three positions introduces many combinations across Arsenal’s front three, which can confuse and mesmerise opposition defences. The likes of Alexis, Giroud and Ozil are equally comfortably floating from one side of the pitch to the other, and this makes the team much harder to pin down.
Walcott’s goal against Aston Villa in the cup final came after a switch to the left, and when he is played ostensibly through the centre it is often his ability to cut inside from a position on the right touchline which proves effective while the opposition are occupied with another more central Arsenal player. With this new versatility, it means we don’t have to have debates any more about whether to play Walcott, or Oxlade-Chamberlain or even the lesser-spotted Gnabry on the right wing, because we can play more than one of them at a time now.
‘Cos you’re worth it
Finally, there is the question of whether a player’s worth is across a whole season or whether certain games should be weighted more highly. Walcott undoubtedly has a taste for the big game.
I’ve already mentioned the opening goal in the FA Cup final last year, and he also scored Arsenal’s goal the last time he reached a final in the 2007 League Cup. Add in the voodoo he seems to hold over Chelsea, goals against United, City, Liverpool and Spurs (“2-0 down, 5-2 up, Theo Walcott wrapped it up!”) as well as his record for England, and you can see that he’s a player who can make a difference when it matters most.
If he scores 20 goals next season, then he’ll be worth that £140,000. Heck, if he only scores 10 goals but they’re all against Chelsea then he’ll still be worth that £140,000.
And of course he’s English. I mention this not out of some sort of misplaced nationalist pride, but because like it or not we have to fit within the restrictive home-grown rules as Manchester City are finding to their cost.
The way I see it, re-signing Walcott demonstrates the ambition of the club.
He’s a player who would get into the teams of pretty much all of our rivals (imagine facing Walcott’s pace and Hazard’s trickery at the same time!) and he’s a player we wanted to keep. If others are prepared to pay him £140,000 per week then that becomes his market value, and if we can afford to pay it then it’s right that we should do so.
No longer hamstrung by the stadium and in a position to kick on, we need to keep players of his quality.
To me, this is the best news all summer. It’s better than winning two trophies before the season starts. It’s better than if we defeat Chelsea on Sunday, no matter how much I dislike Mourinho. And it’s better even than if we signed a brand new, shiny striker tomorrow.
Nowhere to hide, Theo, but why hide when you can run.
The best way to celebrate would be a goal or three on Sunday, and then I can tell Paul once again:
“I told you so.”