The necessary evil of the international week doesn’t make it any less dull. With most of our boys returned home with their limbs in tack and all digits remaining, we turn our eyes towards Liverpool on Saturday. Mean Lean will be doing his usual preview before the game; so I wanted to look at the seemingly intertwined futures of Theo Walcott and Raheem Sterling. From a general perspective, both players’ situations seem to be akin to each other. Both are young English forwards with an abundance of pace who regularly play wide but have a desire to play in a more central attacking role. Both are in tentative contract talks with an apparent unwillingness to sign; the reported wage demands proving to be the main stumbling block. Despite the similarities, Sterling and Theo remain in distinctly different situations.
Sterling has been in the papers for the last few days having told Rodgers that anything short of £180k a week is a slap in the face; which has sparked a number of transfer rumours, with Arsenal apparently at the head of the queue. He is an interesting prospect but one that Arsenal need not pursue. There is little doubt that Sterling has the potential to be an exceptional player; his role in Liverpool’s title bid was significant and, from a neutral’s point of view, interesting to watch. He’s a valuable commodity, his talent and nationality confirm it. He is quick thinking, agile, possesses incredible close control and can change a game. He has proven himself in arguably the toughest league in the world and will continue to improve. Yet I somehow don’t feel as enthusiastic about a potential signing as I would have done in the past. It could be that I’m aware that his current stance could simply be a bargaining tool or it could be that I sympathise with Liverpool having gone through the same with so many of our players. However, I think the biggest reason for not getting too excited about a potential drawn out transfer saga is that he’s simply a player we don’t need. Yes he’s direct and can dribble at pace, but so can Oxlade Chamberlain. Yes he’s good on the ball and makes 2.2 key passes a game, but Ozil outshines him in that department as well; and yes he scores goals but I’m afraid we have a Chilean bulldog who also has a propensity for getting on the score sheet. His talent knows no bounds, but having left QPR for Liverpool at a young age and now having protracted contract talks with Liverpool for a second time, he seems like a player who wouldn’t stay long if someone bigger came knocking. Colin Murray, from TalkSport, believes an element of this is that he’s not as loved by the Liverpool fans as much as others; his name isn’t sung out by all corners of the stadium. If that is the case, it is his job to make them sing his name; give them just cause to boast and laud his brilliance. At the moment, whilst there are flashes of brilliance, he’s not doing it on a regular basis.
In a similar regard, Theo also seems to be demanding big money and yet with only 15 months remaining on his contract, 12 less than Sterling, there doesn’t seem to be as much interest from the bigger teams. Theo’s talents and attributes are obvious but since his return from injury some factions of the fan base have overstated his prowess. Plainly speaking, his arsenal of attacking threat is limited to two facets, pace and composure in front of goal. It is undoubtedly exciting having a player with the pace of Justin Gatlin and the scoring habits of Flippo Inzaghi; yet as Carlos Vela can testify to, speed and a coolness in front of goal does not an Arsenal player make. If you compare Walcott to the player who has usurped him on the right, Welbeck, you can see that Wenger feels the need for a more rounded player. In fact, given that out of all the strikers in the league Welbeck currently has the third worst shot conversion ratio, it is obvious that Wenger feels contributing a goal every other game simply isn’t good enough. Welbeck makes an average of 24 passes per game, whilst Theo donates a miserable 8.5. Similarly, his defensive discipline is frankly horrendous; something Wenger has vocalised in a not too veiled public message recently. In 301 minutes this season, Walcott has made no tackles, whilst the try hard Welbeck has made 1.5 a game. Those figures really are a damning indictment of Walcott’s inability to contribute anything else of note. He simply isn’t good enough to be carried by the rest of the team; even the reserved figure of Mesut Ozil and the delightful Santi Cazorla have had to sacrifice elements of their game to stabilise the team as a whole. Add to that, that we are currently on an unbeaten run, we have the pacey yet inexperienced Hector Bellerin at right back and that Walcott himself is coming back from a lengthy lay off; and it is understandable why Wenger is reluctant to use him. These circumstances have coincided with a reported refusal from Walcott’s advisors towards a potential new contract. It is reasonable, or at least practical, for Walcott to worry about his future at Arsenal. He was once our highest paid player and most dangerous asset and yet now finds himself down the pecking order looking up at some genuine big names. At 26 years old he is coming into his prime and is surely looking for what should be his most pivotal contract imbursement.
However, I feel I would be doing Theo a disservice if I didn’t mention the knock-on effects his pace and finishing have on teams. When playing against Arsenal there are generally two forms of defending: drop deep and play a disciplined two banks of four, or a four and a five, cutting off space in behind the defence; or playing a highline and pressing high up the pitch. You often find that teams lower down the table, Stoke, West Brom, Sunderland will go for the former and teams higher up, United, Sp*rs, Liverpool will go for the latter. Liverpool and Sp*rs have both had some success against us recently by playing high up the pitch and putting pressure on the way we pass out from defence. The counter measure to this is to have that quick option who can get in behind the opposition; when teams are pressing and you’re not finding feet with the usual rhythm and continuity of other games you need to be able to play it down one of the channels for a speedster. Theo obviously gives us that option and unlike Welbeck he can often turn these types of attacks into goals with more regularity. He forces defenders to question their style of defending; either forcing them to drop off a few yards to ensure they have that breathing space to get between the player and the goal or take the riskier option of defending on the front foot, attempting to nip in and win the ball. Walcott may prove unsuitable in a lot of situations but there is a spot for him in this squad; a responsibility that could ultimately prove extremely valuable and rewarding, think Solskjær 1999 & Kanu 2002, both lacked the all-round attributes to be a starring striker for their team but both made huge contributions from the bench.
Sterling’s contract negotiations will rumble on; he still has plenty of time to agree a deal and I think with the TV money that has become available, Liverpool will eventually yield to his demands. If he does become available, I would not be surprised to see Wenger make an offer but I personally don’t see the need. In Theo’s case, despite his popularity amongst the Arsenal faithful, Wenger has refused to cave to the demands of the player and to the calls of a section of the crowd; and for that he should be congratulated. Wenger has been held to ransom before by certain players, and at times has had to concede. He did so with Theo a few years ago when he gave him a stretch in the centre forward role and made him the highest paid player at the club. I remember a lot of people asking if Theo had upped his game or had Arsenal simply sunk in standards; and truthfully I think we lacked a star name and feared losing another asset. I think given how Arsenal have nurtured and developed Theo, Wenger is averse to be given the run around again. It is up to Theo to play his way into the first team and before he can get a chance to do that he needs to show it on the pitch, and possibly, put pen to paper.
‘Til next time,