By Arsenal correspondent Tony Hughes
On the eve of his 26th birthday, Theo Walcott is at a crossroads in his career.
Struggling to regain a regular starting spot at Arsenal after virtually a year of his career was wiped out by a knee injury, he has opened talks with the club on a new contract.
Walcott wants to commit what should be his peak years to the club he first joined as a 16-year-old, and is keen on a five-year deal that will keep him at Emirates Stadium until he is 31.
However, the player’s timing is not ideal. Walcott’s negotiating position is not as strong as it was in January 2013 when he was a nailed-on starter scoring freely and in the final six months of his contract. A £25million-rated player could have said his goodbyes to Arsenal that summer and left on a free transfer.
Walcott had a strong hand in negotiations and played it. The England international’s camp negotiated a deal running until 2016, with the option of an extra year, that lifted Walcott into the top bracket of earners at the time at Emirates Stadium on £90,000-a-week. The salary was handsome, and there was plenty of wriggle room if things did not work out.
There has now been a slight shift in power. It is understood that Walcott’s representatives approached Arsenal chiefs before Christmas, rather than the other way around, to assess the club’s interest in opening talks on a fresh deal.
With the player out of contract again in 18 months, the Gunners responded positively but were slightly taken aback at his opening position in the game of poker that is modern-day contract talks.
As revealed today by Football Insider, Walcott wants a contract that will put him on a par with top earners Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil.
Given that the basic salaries of Arsenal’s two record signings are worth £130,000-a-week, he is effectively asking for a £33.8m commitment over five years from a club whose £166m annual wage bill remains well below those of Manchester United (£215m), Manchester City (£205m) and Chelsea (193m).
You could imagine a sharp intake of breath from Gunners owner Stan Kroenke when news of Walcott’s demands was relayed to his Detroit lair.
At best, Walcott’s camp are being somewhat optimistic. At worst, they are living in cloud cuckoo land if they think he should be earning the same as Sanchez and Ozil.
Sanchez has had a breathtaking debut campaign, scoring 19 goals and virtually singlehandedly keeping Arsenal in top-four contention in the first half of the season. The jury remains out on Ozil’s abilty to thrive in English football, but he joined Arsenal from the planet’s biggest club as a proven world-class player with his best years ahead of him.
By contrast, Walcott is not as integral to Arsenal’s attacking plans as he once was. In the four-and-a-half months since recovering from the anterior cruciate ligament injury that sidelined him for 11 months, he has started just five matches and made 12 appearances in all.
Despite playing 72 minutes of the Gunners’ 3-0 win over West Ham on Saturday, the Englishman finds himself behind Sanchez, Ozil, Olivier Giroud, Danny Welbeck, Santi Cazorla and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in the pecking order for the first-team attacking roles.
Crunch the numbers even further and the statistics are fairly damning. Since putting pen to paper on a new deal on 18th January, 2013, Walcott has made 48 appearances for Arsenal and scored 16 goals. Of the 121 matches the Gunners have played over this period, Walcott has been involved in just 40 per cent of them.
Wenger wants his longest-serving player to stay. He recognises that forwards with pace to burn are rare gems, and there is no sign that the 25-year-old has lost any of his turbo-charged acceleration since his return.
“We have started very early with him,” said Wenger last Friday of Walcott’s contract talks. “He is very quick on the pitch, but off the pitch not always.
“Walcott was difficult to convince (in 2013) and that is why it took us much time. I always wanted to keep him and I still want to keep him now.
“I want him to stay and be a regular player and fight for his place, but no matter where you go if it is a big club you have to compete for your place.”
Arsenal have not lost faith in Walcott. But you sense that they could afford to if he does not have a reality check during future discussions.