Arsene Wenger describes Theo Walcott as a "straight-line" player, which is something of a double-edged compliment.
It is a testament to his raw speed, his simple gift, his focus and his directness. But it also raises a thorny question: how do you accommodate a straight-line player in a team that appears to have turned a corner?
Having recovered from a cruciate injury suffered at the beginning of last year, Walcott's reintegration into the first team has been fitful. Wenger still appears reluctant to trust him in big games. Against Manchester United on Monday night, Walcott saw Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain being substituted and readied himself for action, only to slink away in disappointment as Aaron Ramsey was sent on instead.
Wenger has been using Walcott's injury as an excuse for his lack of game time, but yesterday he let slip the real reason. "Yes, I have been holding him back," he said ahead of this afternoon's game against West Ham. "Because he has been out for a long time; and the fact that there is intense competition."
Walcott is only 25, but there is already a sense that his Arsenal career is at something of a crossroads. In early 2013, Walcott was one of Arsenal's few genuine stars, rewarded with a new £100,000-a-week deal that made him the club's highest-paid player. But as talks begin over renewing that deal, Walcott finds himself - for now - a fringe player.
Walcott's contract expires in just over a year, but if history is anything to go by, renewing it will be anything but easy. There are bittersweet memories on both sides of the last set of talks, a protracted and frequently fractious negotiation that very nearly ended with Walcott leaving the club.
"The first contacts have been established with the embassy!" Wenger said, allowing himself a sly little gag. "We will see how that progresses politically. [Last time] Walcott was difficult to convince, and that is why it took us much time."
What makes things different this time is that Walcott's bargaining position is nowhere near as robust now as it was then. In 2012, with star players leaving through all exits, Arsenal simply could not afford to let Walcott go. But new players have been signed: Alexis Sanchez and Danny Welbeck, both of whom offer a similar attacking impetus but are more multi-dimensional players than Walcott.
Most importantly, Wenger's modified tactical outlook is threatening to leave Walcott without an obvious role in the team.
The New Model Arsenal is a team comfortable playing without the ball, content to maintain its shape and wait for an opportunity to break. Walcott's relative lack of defensive discipline and technical quality make him less expendable.
One of the ironies of all this is that in Walcott's absence, Oxlade-Chamberlain has matured into the sort of player Walcott was supposed to become: an intelligent attacking midfielder with a venomous turn of pace. But after sustaining a hamstring injury at Old Trafford on Monday, he is now out for the next few weeks, which may give Walcott his chance. All of which poses the question: what happens if he fails to take it?
"I want him to stay and be a regular player and fight for his place," Wenger said. "But no matter where you go, if it is a big club you have to compete for your place. That is part of the job." It remains to be seen whether Arsenal's straight-line player is capable of taking a side-step. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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