Arsene Wenger is a very private man. Those who have watched every second of Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal will testify that Wenger has seldom given away much in the past 16 years. But there is a difference in the Arsene Wenger of the summer of 2011 and the Arsene Wenger of the current summer: a visibly broken man in 2011 has been replaced by a new, fiery and defiant Wenger on the trip to Asia in 2012.
Sitting from afar, Wenger’s personal and emotional investment in Cesc Fabregas seemed to be far greater than that in Robin van Persie, or even of Theo Walcott. Last summer, the Fabregas shenanigans seemed to have jolted Wenger out of the belief that personal and emotional investments in particular players would make them share his love and belief in Arsenal Football Club. That pure and unadulterated devotion is seldom found these days. It is for this reason that Robin van Persie’s shenanigans this summer have not caught Wenger by surprise; the replacements are in, the sublime Santi Cazorla’s arrival is being talked about as imminent, and the squad is being given a thorough reassessment. There is a fury in the belly of Arsene Wenger now and for that, the Premier League and European football will be grateful. If Arsenal can deliver the goods many people across the world so dearly love to watch.
With Arsene in this mood, there will be no-nonsense when it comes to Theo Walcott. A devastating wide player on his day, Walcott’s preference to play central is no secret. What had held him back was Arsenal’s Fabregas-centered ploy of playing a flexible 4-2-3-1 after the departures of Mattieu Flamini and Alexander Hleb in the same summer of 2008. Tomas Rosicky’s extended injuries break coincidentally also started that same summer, landing Samir Nasri a starting berth on the left-wing. It was only last year – 3 years after Hleb’s departure – that Walcott became more consistent on the wing. Even then, his assists stats read impressively due to the sheer brilliance of Robin van Persie, who converted even half chances into goals.
For all ostensible purposes, Robin van Persie is out of the picture at Arsenal. And quite reasonably, Wenger’s insistence in Beijing has been on how to accommodate the new, shiny strikers:
“I think Podolski will play more central for us. Giroud is a different target man who would be more the player in a 4-4-2. He knocks the ball down, protects the ball well, makes play for his partners, and is a very intelligent player who has great physique, as well as being very strong in the air.”
With the expectation that Podolski has come to play and not sit on the bench, this is as obvious as Wenger has gotten in terms of hinting at a rather scrumptious prospect of a 4-4-2 this season (barring the odd big game in the Premier League and the Champions League). His ambivalence on Podolski’s position – the ‘I think’ part – leaves the door open for Theo Walcott to understand that perhaps now is his chance to move central too. With Cazorla expected to arrive, Walcott is not likely to survive as a starting wide player in a more expansive first-choice 4-4-2: besides Cazorla, Walcott’s competition includes Tomas Rosicky, a now-acclimatized Gervinho, Podolski, and of course, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. For an expansive 4-4-2, the afore-mentioned players have better vision, control and final ball than Theo Walcott.
Arsene knows his picking on the wings. But he also shares the belief of Walcott fans that he is a striker; only that his education on the wing had been undergoing since the past four years. With no Robin van Persie in the picture, this is undoubtedly Walcott’s chance to assume the role he had so desired at Arsenal since he arrived. Wenger’s likely preference at the start of the season may well be to pair Walcott with Giroud: while Giroud and Podolski find their feet in the Premier League, Walcott will be expected to take on goal-scoring duties. It is during this time that Walcott will need to cement his place as one of Arsenal’s two first-choice strikers. However, this will of course depend on the future of Robin Van Persie and any signings the club makes. Walcott has of course openly expressed his wishes to play as a striker for Arsenal F.C. but he has also admitted that he would not be suited to the lone striker role in the past.
Of course, there is a counter argument to Walcott being moved centrally: he will wilt under pressure. This may yet prove to be true, but it is fair to state that the current Walcott is an upgrade on the tentative one of two or three seasons ago. Arsenal will be loath to lose Walcott not simply because of his footballing ability but equally, because of the commercial benefits he brings by virtue of being an Englishman. As far as Wenger is concerned, he will take a punt on Walcott.
For Walcott, here is the key question: will staying at Arsenal help his career? Of the four who will play this year’s Champions League, Arsenal may yet be the only one to play a 4-4-2 – unless either of the Manchester teams manage to grab hold of Robin van Persie. Chelsea have already completed several transfer this summer, meaning thereby that Walcott will not be a starter if he did move to Stamford Bridge. On the wings too, the other three have superior options than Walcott. Thus, if Walcott was to seek a switch to play in a starting XI of one of Arsenal’s rival clubs it is difficult to imagine he would make the cut instead proving to be a good impact sub or a cup player instead, if he did leave Arsenal.
On the other hand, is Arsenal and Arsene Wenger: there is some truth in the argument that Arsenal have had a Man City-esque approach when it comes to attracting young players, but more true is the fact that Arsene Wenger has churned out superstar after superstar from unpolished and raw gems. There was a time during Sol Campbell’s final days of his extended Arsenal career that commentators on television scoffed at Wenger for not having a single Englishman in the Arsenal starting XI. That has surely changed, with Walcott, Wilshere, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Gibbs all in and around the Arsenal starting XI. In his own way, Wenger is contributing to what will be a technically-better England team. But critical here is the realization that none of these players, not even Walcott, are the finished article.
Theo Walcott has lived the dream of many a young player: learning under the tutelage of Arsene Wenger. Beyond any transfer and contract talks generated by agents, it is Walcott’s time to recognize that his career will continue its upward trajectory under Arsene Wenger. The fact that it may well be as a striker should be an added incentive although, this is not certain. His journey will undoubtedly be tough; competing with Podolski, and perhaps even another signing or a teammate from the Reserves. But ultimately, Wenger has signalled to Walcott that his future lies here at Arsenal and he is an important member of Arsenal’s ambitions.
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