Chelsea Preview: Dawn of the Theo-cracy

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The saga is over and Theo Walcott has signed a new contract with Arsenal Football Club.

It’s undoubtedly good news for Arsenal.  It stems the flow of talent away from the club, and shows a renewed willingness to flex our financial muscle.

It’s arguably even better news for Theo.  Having steadfastly refused to agree to the club’s initial offer of £75k p/week, he’ll now find himself picking up far more than that.  Depending on which red top you read, the weekly salary wages from between £90k to a mammoth £113k.  Either way, it seems he has escaped the binds of Arsene’s “socialist” pay structure, simultaneously superseding Lukas Podolski as the club’s highest paid player.

I never imagined that Theo Walcott would be the man for whom Arsenal would break their strict wage hierarchy.  Granted, he’s having a statistically outstanding season, but he remains far from perfect.  So many more talented players have sought the kind of sums Walcott was demanding, only to find themselves being shown the door to Barcelona or Manchester.

The truth is that Walcott is the lucky beneficiary of a perfect storm of circumstance.  Arsenal could not afford the PR disaster of losing another one of their perceived stars.  The club is also under more pressure than ever to show ambition in their expenditure.  Every time Walcott produced on the pitch, the likelihood of Arsenal caving to his demands increased significantly.

I’m still a little surprised he’s signed.  It’s rare that a player gets within six months of a Bosman move and is able to resist, and I went on record as saying that I didn’t think Arsenal and Theo would ever come to an agreement.  But Walcott knows that Arsenal is a set-up that suits him, and it’s not clear which (if any) elite clubs would be able to offer him the playing time he gets at the Emirates.

He enjoys playing with the likes of Kieran Gibbs, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Jack Wilshere.  At the risk of sounding jingoistic, I think the British core the club are building is important.  We are building a group of young players who seem eager to stick together and achieve something.  Keeping Walcott benefits the collective.

It’s now very much a case of “over to you, Theo”.  He’s got the money he wanted; now he has to justify it.  If he doesn’t, at least Arsenal can look to recoup a fee, rather than losing a valuable asset for nothing.

It’s “over to you, Arsene” too.  Having tied up the deal that was his priority for January, he now has a couple of weeks remaining to make an impact in the transfer market.  Talk of someone like Cavani is wildly unrealistic, although I still think it’s imperative that Arsenal bring in a striker.  If we select our first choice front three of Podolski, Giroud and Walcott, we would not have a single forward on the bench.  For a club of our size, that is unforgivable.

In a watershed week for Arsenal, I hope tomorrow’s game with Chelsea is a similarly significant landmark in our season.  It proved so last season, with a 5-3 victory restoring faith in a team that had spent the early months of the season on the ropes.  This fixture at Stamford Bridge could also be pivotal: if we could win there, then against West Ham in midweek, we’d find ourselves just two points behind a Chelsea side who had threatened to pull out of sight.  With Spurs facing of against United, this could be a critical week in the race for the Champions League.

If you fancy a flutter on tomorrow’s game, check out my betting preview for Unibet, complete with predicted line-ups and top tips.  You can get 8.5 on Theo to celebrate his new contract with the first goal…

Transfer Update: Ba, Adrian, Djourou & No Theo Talks

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If Arsenal do sign a forward in this transfer window, it won’t be Demba Ba.  The Senegalese striker is instead on the way to Chelsea, who have moved early in the transfer window to secure Ba by meeting the £7m release clause in his contract.

I made little secret of the fact that Ba was my preferred choice to solve Arsenal’s striker problems –  I was banging on about it as early as October.  He struck me as an affordable, athletic goalscorer – exactly what we need to help Olivier Giroud during his period of adaptation.

However, as soon as Chelsea became interested it became unlikely.  On Wednesday I received a piece of information which went some way towards explaining Arsenal’s unwillingness to get involved in the transfer: there are five agents involved in the deal, each demanding a fee of £1m.  If Chelsea meet their demands, that almost doubles the cost of the signing, and means Ba’s representatives will take home as much from the deal as Newcastle themselves (£2m of the £7m buyout goes straight in to Ba’s pocket).   Add that to Ba’s £80,000 p/week pay-packet and suddenly the gamble on his Swiss cheese cartilage seems a lot more expensive.

Adrián López seems much more like an Arsene Wenger signing.  I can’t vouch for the veracity of the links with the Spanish forward, but he has all the attributes Arsene tends to look for: he’s young, quick, technically capable and extremely versatile.  He could play in any of the front three positions, which would give Wenger plenty of options and effectively replace Gervinho – during his African Nations exile and hopefully beyond.  Some reports have dubbed him “the next David Villa”, but after a difficult season this time round Arsenal fans could be forgiven for hoping for the real thing instead.

Room will have to be made in the squad, and one of the players who has been deemed dispensable is Johan Djourou.  The Swiss defender is already in talks with a Ligue 1 club about a permanent move, and when you add that to declared interest from Hannover the signs suggest he could end January anywhere but North London.

I have to say I’m sorry to see him go.  I think he’s far better than public perception would have you believe.  Don’t forget, it was a back-line of Djourou and Koscielny that played in our 2-1 victory over Barcelona at the Emirates.  At that time, almost two years ago, he looked like an Arsenal first-teamer for years to come.  Since then, however, he’s failed to get a run of games together, and it saddens me that the last memory many Gooners will have of him is of a few halting performances playing out-of-position at full-back.

Should Djourou go, I don’t necessarily expect Arsenal to sign a replacement.  Ignasi Miquel is 20 now and extremely well thought of.  This could be his opportunity to become part of the first team squad, especially with the news that Sebastien Squillaci could also be off – although I’d be staggered if he could find a club prepared to match his Arsenal wages.

Finally, you may have read yesterday that Theo Walcott was due to spend the afternoon in talks with Arsenal over a new contract.  Well, I wouldn’t expect an announcement any time soon: my information is that no such talks took place.  I’m sure there’ll be contact between Arsenal and Theo this month, but that summit has not taken place yet.

Look at that.  The window is only a few days already and we’re already up to our neck in transfer chat.  It could be a long month.  I can only guarantee you that all information I give you is in good faith, and absolutely authentic.  Follow me on Twitter @gunnerblog for transfer tidbits and window wailings.  It’s rarely fun.

Arsene has given up on keeping Theo

I’m convinced the game is up with Walcott.  Asked about the dangers of keeping Theo in January, Arsene said:

“There’s a risk that we lose him for free – but it is a risk we are ready to take.  A successful season is more important than this week; which is only a financial risk anyway … I believe that we started the season with this squad and we want to finish it with this squad.”

These are not the words of a man who expects news of a contract imminently.  He didn’t even bother trotting out his “I always said I want to keep him” line – the same line reserved for Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and Robin van Persie.  Contained with the above quote is a tacit admission that December deadline will come and go without any progress on a new deal for Theo.

Theo has responded with the line about the fact that his last contract took “six or seven months” to sort out, so there’s no need to panic.  It’s a line that would have more weight and relevance if his current negotiations hadn’t dragged on for more than 18 months.  If you believe this story, Theo is already preparing to up sticks and go.

There is a distinction in class, however, between Theo and that trio.  Football is a game governed by short memories.  After the opening game of the season, the venerable Arseblogger said this of the young winger:

“Theo Walcott, however, stank the place out. His first touch of the game came early on, a pass was sprayed out wide to him on the right hand side and he clobbered it out for a Sunderland throw. It was a taste of things to come and knowing how much of his game is negated when teams sit deep I was staggered it took so long for him to be replaced.”

A few days later, when news of the possibility of his departure before the end of the window surfaced, he said:

“It has been very interesting to read the reaction online to the possibility of Walcott’s departure. For the most part, and I realise this is as unscientific as it gets, people seem pretty much ok with it, even if there is frustration at the timing of events … While not ignoring Walcott’s blinding pace, something every team needs, a player at this level needs more than that.”

The reason I cite these in particular is because here is a valued, respected commentator – someone who so often captures the sentiments of the fans – expressing how we felt at the time.  That is a matter of weeks ago.  Since then, Theo Walcott has started a further five games.  That is the extent of his contribution since those opinions were valid: five full appearances.  And yet suddenly the mood has transformed, and losing him would be widely perceived as a disaster.  Worth bearing in mind before you curse all of the Gods about Theo’s more than likely departure.

Arsenal face a must-win game against Montpellier tonight, and must do so without the injured Walcott.  It is something we should prepare to get used to.

Gloomy interlull thoughts on Jenkinson, Sagna, Theo & more

It’s a great week to be Carl Jenkinson. Not only has he been handed his first call-up to the England squad, forsaking Finland in the process, but he’s agreed a new five-year contract with Arsenal worth more than £30,000 p/ week. It’s just reward for a player whose career has not so much taken strides forward as giant leaps and bounds. Little more than two years ago he was on loan in the non-league; now he’s on the verge of his international debut. It shows, too, just how quietly and quickly a deal can be agreed when both parties are willing to come to an agreement.

In the meantime, several other players continue to run their contracts towards conclusion with worryingly little news on potential agreements. I’ve made plain my stated belief that Theo Walcott will not sign a new deal, and I expect the club will make every effort to move him on at a reduced price in January rather than lose him for nothing. Theo, who has picked up a glute muscle strain, has been replaced in the England squad by Crystal Palace’s Wilfried Zaha. It would not surprise me too greatly to see the same substitution occur in the Arsenal squad after Christmas.

Whilst I’ve pretty much come to terms with the likelihood of Theo’s departure, I am a little alarmed at the lack of news regarding an extension to Bacary Sagna’s contract. The Frenchman was pretty vocal about the fact he hadn’t yet been approached by Arsenal in the summer. Time has worn on and whilst his youthful deputy has been handed a new deal, Sagna waits for progress. Come next summer, he’ll have just twelve months remaining on his current deal, and we all know that story ends. For me, keeping Sagna is imperative. Jenkinson has been impressive this season, but the Frenchman is one of the best right-backs in the world. If he became available, some of the biggest clubs in football would be queuing up his signature: the likes of Real Madrid, Inter Milan or even Manchester United. I’d argue he’s one of our few remaining world class talents. Worryingly, that also makes him one of our few remaining saleable assets.

However much Jenkinson improves in the coming months, Arsenal should not contemplate losing an experienced performer like Sagna. Similarly you could argue that Zaha for Walcott would be swapping inexperience and risk for relative consistency – unfortunately in the case of Theo it seems the battle to keep him is already lost. What terrifies me about the Sagna situation is that it seems to stem from our own complacency. There is a willingness to see him enter the last 18 months of his contract, which shows a staggering failure to learn lessons from previous experience.

The talent drain will continue, and no player is immune. Jack Wilshere might profess his loyalty now, but unless Arsenal improve enough to match his ambition then that commitment will be tested by the pounds and prizes on offer elsewhere. Arsenal are unmatched in their ability to lose their best players. Look at Everton: a club with far greater financial restrictions. In recent years, they’ve held on to Leighton Baines, Phil Jagielka, Marouane Fellaini and others, despite interest from some of the country’s biggest clubs. Arsenal themselves were rebuffed in a bid for Jagielka. We did, of course, succeed in prizing away Mikel Arteta, but Everton got a very good fee for a player entering his thirties with a dodgy knee. They’ve also balanced the books by selling Jack Rodwell, receiving £15m for a player who didn’t even regularly make their first team. In the same period of time, Arsenal have lost Fabregas, Nasri, Van Persie and Song. Once upon a time, Arsenal sold their stars when their powers were on the wane. Now they lose players as they enter their peak.

Financial Fair Play has long been touted as the antidote to Arsenal’s ailment. However, the fact that Chelsea were able to demonstrate a profit last week is yet another puncture in that once hopeful prospect. Arsenal have held on waiting to reap the rewards of parsimony. In the meantime Chelsea have speculated to accumulate, overtaken us footballistically, and are fast catching up financially. This interlull feels gloomier than most.

Theo should learn from Mikel Arteta

Since the closure of the transfer window, it’s been all quiet on the Walcott front.  Events in the final week of the window followed a confusing trajectory.  At one point Walcott was issued an ultimatum – ‘Sign or be sold’ – only for Arsenal to relent and allow him to stay without reaching agreement on his contract.

As bizarre and unlikely as it seems, my understanding is that is played out pretty much like that.  On the Monday, Dick Law made a series of phone calls to enquire about the availability of other wingers from the continent – presumably as potential Walcott replacements.  Within 48 hours or so, Arsene Wenger was telling the assembled media that Walcott would stay.  In in the interim, the club obviously decided that the upheaval caused by a third major departure was not worth it.

At the time, Arsene said he expected Walcott to sign a new deal.  Of course he said that – anything else would be tantamount to admitting the player was on borrowed time.  But now, a month on, an agreement seems no closer.  Not only that, but Walcott has fallen out of the first-team and was met with a smattering of jeers on his last appearance at the Emirates.

Yesterday, he had his say. Speaking at the launch of the Football Association’s Just Play scheme, he said:

“I’ve been judged, with people saying it’s all about money. It’s never been that with me. Playing up front is important. It’s one of the main factors for me.”

It seems like a well-rehearsed line; he trotted it out to countless journalists yesterday, hence today’s headlines.  I’ve met Walcott – he is one of the most media-savvy footballers I’ve come across.  When you ask him a question, his eyes glaze over and he goes in to an automated, robotic response.  I’m sure there’s a sparkling personality in there, but media training and inherent conservatism have clouded it in the banale rhetoric of football.  For him to say something as arguably controversial as this, it had to be planned.

He went on:

“I signed as a striker. I’ve learnt my trade out on the wing. Hopefully, I’ll get to play up front in the next few games. It’s frustrating being on the bench, but it’s one of those things I have to deal with.”

You didn’t sign as a striker, Theo.  You signed as a sixteen year old.  At that age, William Gallas was a striker, and Kieran Gibbs a winger.  A players development between 16 and 23, Walcott’s current age, cannot be pre-determined.  It’s been seven years, and Walcott looks far more like a winger than a centre-forward now.

Theo’s supposed desire is also tactically naieve: Arsenal play 4-3-3.  That means three forwards.  He is a striker, just positioned in a wide area.  If it’s good enough for Lukas Podolski, it ought to be more than good enough for him.

And if this is really how he feels, then there’s something very childish about his attitude.  Theo hasn’t played upfront for almost a decade.  He doesn’t even really know what that experience is like at the top level.  But he knows what it represents.  He knows what it stands for and he wants, “like Thierry Henry”, to be the main man.

Theo could learn a thing or two from Mikel Arteta.  And by that, I don’t mean about styling his hair a glue-gun rather than a hairdryer.  After Sunday’s game against Man City, the Spaniard was asked about his new role as a holding midfielder. He said:

“It is a big transition but it is more a mental thing. The boss is convinced that is the best thing for the team and I am too, so let’s do it.”

This is a player who is more than capable of playing an attacking role, and yet has sacrificed that for the team.  And this is a guy who, unlike Walcott, does not have a long career stretching in front of him.  He’s on borrowed time in football terms, and yet is prepared to put the team first.

When you add it all up, this “big factor” of wanting to play through the middle doesn’t really seem to make any sense, does it?  And that’s when it becomes exposed for what it is: a cover story.  Another PR spin from ‘camp Walcott’ so that when he refuses to sign a new deal they can protest that it wasn’t about the money.  Perhaps I’m wrong and he will stay, but this looks to me a lot like he’s getting his excuses in early.

Don’t worry, Theo; you’re excused.  I suspect we’ll cope just fine without you.