By Chris Jenkins (@ByChrisJenkins)
There’s only one logical reaction to last week’s news that Jack Wilshere, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Kieran Gibbs, Aaron Ramsey and Carl Jenkinson signed long-term contracts with Arsenal.
It was an early Arsenal Christmas.
Holiday cheer? Hell yes. After going through summer after summer of incessant rumors of other top clubs trying to pry away Arsenal’s top stars – rumors that too often came true – you now don’t have to sweat when Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester City or anyone else comes sniffing around Wilshere or The Ox over the next few years.
And if you do hear those rumors, you can pretty much ignore them.
Both Wilshere and The Ox – and, to a lesser extent, the three teammates who signed alongside them — certainly knew the riches that might await them down the road at other clubs if they continued to fulfill their potential while playing on below-market contracts.
They instead chose to commit to Arsenal, and those improved contracts are rewards for their loyalty. Yes, they’re absolutely getting paid for their potential rather than their production, amounting to high-stakes bets by Arsene Wenger and the Arsenal front office. Despite the risks, the moves are wise ones.
Depending on what pundits you read or listen to, Arsenal either is unable or unwilling to match the wages that United, City and Chelsea are willing to pay for elite players. Given that reality, Arsenal’s best path to set itself up for the future was to go all-in on the skyhigh potential of Wilshere and The Ox.
Including Gibbs, Ramsey and Jenkinson in that group is a vote of confidence from Wenger, a sign that he thinks those three players can become more consistent as they mature.
There are downsides, for sure.
Wilshere and Gibbs both have injury histories. These deals are bets that both players can put it behind them.
The signing of Jenkinson is a clear-cut message that Bacary Sagna isn’t a part of Arsenal’s long-term plans. That’s a shame, given Sagna’s understated and underrated brilliance. But it’s not overly shocking, given his age and injury history.
And then there’s Ramsey. Dreadfully inconsistent, but still very young, the new deal is a sign that Wenger sees something in Ramsey that we don’t.
Those concerns aside, the deals nail down a significant portion of Arsenal’s core for years to come (it’s still weird, though, coming from a U.S. perspective that we don’t have some sort of idea how long each deal is for or what it’s worth; don’t these guys have agents who like to leak details?).
Which brings us to Theo.
With the transfer window set to open Jan. 1, the club has about a month left to decide on whether it wants to wave goodbye to another marquee player. With his contract running out, now is the time for Arsenal to either sign him to a new deal or go get the best price possible in the transfer market.
That means that Arsenal has only a few games to decide if Walcott has a real future as a central striker, the position he wants to play.
Walcott finally got his chance to play up top against Reading, and the results were remarkable – not so much for Walcott’s performance, which included a goal, but for what his presence did to open up space for Arsenal’s midfield.
Suddenly having to worry about tracking a quick, dangerous player in the final third, Reading had to deviate from the plan most teams have used to frustrate Arsenal this season. They couldn’t put pressure on the ball in midfield, and were absolutely carved apart when Wilshere, Santi Cazorla and Mikel Arteta had space and time.
It would be dangerous to read too much into one game, especially when it came against perhaps the worst side in the league. But if having Walcott deployed as a central striker prevents opposing defenses from putting pressure on Arsenal’s midfield, they’ve suddenly solved the source of their biggest problem this season. It’d be especially compelling to see what Walcott would do when paired up front with a healthy Olivier Giroud – or, perhaps, Demba Ba.
That makes the next few matches critical for Walcott and Arsenal.
As a winger, he’s mostly holding up Oxlade-Chamberlain’s development and should be sold. But if Walcott really can play as a central striker and make opposing defenses think twice about applying pressure in midfield, he just might be worth keeping.