I ought to be revelling in this victory. Instead, it’s strangely bittersweet.
Make no mistake, this was Theo Walcott’s game. Although his first half performance was patchy, he went on to complete a scintillating hattrick and pick up a couple of assists along the way. This was probably his finest performance in an Arsenal shirt, and a convincing audition to be the long-term occupent of the central striking berth.
The first goal will invite comparisons with Thierry Henry, coming as it did after an intelligently bent run, matched by an equally intelligent bent shot inside the far post. The second was a wonderful finish, clipped with little backlift past a wall of Newcastle defenders and in to the top corner. The hattrick goal was the best of the bunch: after collecting the ball from a short free-kick on the left, Walcott scooted between two challenges, tumbled to the ground, sprung to his feet a la Stamford Bridge last year, and lifted the ball beautifully over the goalkeeper. It was a goal worthy of a hattrick, worthy of the crowd’s acclaim, and worthy of Sunday morning’s headlines.
It was not, however, a goal worthy of a £100,000 p/week salary. Not in the mind of Arsenal’s board, who are still locked in stalemate with Theo Walcott’s representatives. And so, whilst I should have been lost in ecstasy over Walcott’s outstanding display, I was instead consumed with the thought that Theo Walcott might finally be about to explode in to the player he’s long threatened to be, just six months before he walks out of the club on a Bosman free.
Yesterday, there was one man who took more delight in Walcott’s performance than Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal fans, or even Theo himself: his agent. He will have been rubbing his hands together, as his negotiating position was enormously strengthened by this hattrick display. The pressure upon Arsenal to meet his client’s demands has never been greater. Equally, any potential suitors’ interest will have been piqued. Theo holds all the cards.
I’ve long insisted that if he was going to sign, he would have done so by now. We are just two days away from Walcott being able to formally discuss a contract with a new club. It’s hard to question his commitment on the field; equally hard to ascertain his commitment off it.
Arsenal, of course, can’t afford to freeze him out. In the past Arsene Wenger has had a squad so replete with options that he’s been able to leave the likes of Edu and Sylvain Wiltord out of the first-team squad once it became clear their futures lay elsewhere. Not so this season. The competition for fourth place is so fierce, and the squad so bear that an in-form Walcott is a guaranteed starter.
The question I keep coming back to is: if he hasn’t signed thus far, why would he sign now? He doesn’t even have the threat of being omitted from the team hanging over him. He can continue to play games, score goals, and let the offers from other clubs roll in. By the end of the season he’ll have deals on the table that significantly surpass the £100k he is demanding from Arsenal – never mind the £75k or so they’re currently offering.
It’s why I was so gutted when Olivier Giroud volleyed that late opportunity against the bar. I would have loved to have seen a hattrick scored by a player I am confident will be with us beyond May. On the subject of Giroud, his introduction saw Theo moved out to the right. In that position he still managed to score one and assist another inside fifteen minutes. He’s doing well in the centre, but I’ve not seen much yet that I don’t think he could do coming in off the line from a wide starting position. His form is not depending on his position.
Regardless of where he plays, it looks like he’ll have a tremendous goalscoring season. Arsenal will benefit in the short-term, but as long as that contract remains unsigned, each goal will be accompanied by a familiar feeling of gloom as we achingly cheer the name of a player all but certain to desert the club come the summer. It’s a bit like Robin van Persie last year, all over again.
Before I go I ought to give some praise to Newcastle United, who were excellent up around the 70th minute, at which point they collapsed. It’s worth remembering that whilst our players had their feet up on Boxing Day, Newcastle were playing out a draining 4-3 at Old Trafford. It showed, and the ludicrous scoreline in yesterday’s game can be attributed to the fact they completely ran out of gas.
They have some superb players, though. I was impressed by two young midfielders who aren’t even regular starters for them. First off, Sylvain Marveaux continued his impressive adaptation to English football, providing one particularly sumptuous cross for their third goal. Then there was Gael Bigirimana, a 19 year old who last season was playing for Coventry City, who moved the ball intelligently and accurately all afternoon.
As for Demba Ba, if we don’t try to sign him for £7m then it is tantamount to mismanagement. I made a point of watching him carefully from behind the goal, and his power, movement and finishing is outstanding. Walcott and Giroud’s goals were heartening, but we’re still in need of more attacking options, and with Premier League experience and an affordable price tag, Ba fits the bill.
Further reading: Player Ratings for Bleacher Report