Walcott makes his case

Walcott makes his case

For Thierry Henry, it must seem like his youth passing before him. On leave from the New York Red Bulls, where he is seeing out the last of his playing time, Henry is back at his first love, Arsenal.

He trains there to stay healthy during the break in the American season. He watches from the stands, nattily dressed in tartan, applauding Theo Walcott, a player hoping to evolve into King Henry II for the London team.The resemblance is growing.

When Thierry H was in his pomp, wearing the red shirt with the white No 14, he displayed almost feline speed of movement with impeccable ball skills.

He was a winger turned into a predator of marvellous goals. When the time was ripe, after Henry turned 23 years old, the coach, Arsene Wenger, encouraged the shy young man to drift in from the wings to terrorise defenders in central positions.

The rest is history: 228 goals scored over the span of eight seasons for Arsenal. Goals of stealth, imagination, technique and, above all, of astonishing speed that defenders could not live with.

On the last Saturday of 2012, Walcott, the apprentice wearing No 14, scored a hat-trick as Arsenal beat Newcastle United 7-3. Each of his goals was spectacular, and each different.

For the first, he darted in from the left, saw where Newcastle United’s goalie, Tim Krul, was positioned, and stroked the ball around the keeper with precision that took it a fraction inside the base of the far post.

“'It was manic,'” Walcott said at the end of the contest.  “'The game was so open, and that played into our hands.”

Indeed so. Arsenal’s strength is the counter-attack, and with Newcastle’s back-line so stretched, this was a game tailor-made for such tactics.

The best of the 10 goals on the day was Walcott’s third. He advanced from the left. He jinked, he danced, he dodged between three defenders, stretching their sinews and their minds.

One of them bundled him over, and it would have been a penalty had Walcott stayed down. But he got up from his knees more quickly than the referee might blow his whistle, and, in the blink of an eye, Walcott flicked the ball over the advancing goalkeeper.

A magic goal, conjured out of thin air. An Henry-esque goal by a player who has been asking to play central striker for more than a year.

The news media, full these days of former players or failed coaches, have been criticising Arsenal -- and Wenger -- throughout this season for not giving Walcott free rein. The chorus of experts is that Arsenal either lets Walcott play where he pleases, or he will become the latest Arsenal player to find a club that will give him that freedom.

Losing players

The memory of Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri, Robin van Persie and others leaving Arsenal in their prime has damaged Wenger’s team-building -- and Arsenal’s credibility -- year after year.

Walcott is the last of a coterie of coveted young Englishmen whom Arsenal must either sign on new, extended contracts or lose.

“'Sign him up! Sign him up!” bayed the crowd after the game Saturday, as Walcott took a lap of honor, holding the match ball that a hat-trick hero gets to keep.

“'We are working on it” is the message that both Wenger and Walcott give when they are pressed, at virtually every postgame interview, to say when or if a new deal will be signed. The clock is ticking, because Walcott’s current contract expires at the end of this season.

Central to the discussion is not simply money, though Arsenal is more parsimonious with its cash than, say, Chelsea, the Manchesters, or even Tottenham and Liverpool.

The crux is that Walcott keeps expressing the desire to step into a central role, now that Henry has gone Stateside and Van Persie has moved to Manchester United. All in good time, is Wenger’s response.

“Thierry was 23 when I decided to move him to the middle,” Wenger says, smiling at his inquisitors. “I like the signs that I see with Theo. He is, you know, 23. It is an interesting challenge that I think he can take on.”

“On the wing, you need a shorter technique, whereas through the middle you have to learn a lot, to go right or go left. I always said Theo would one day play through the middle, and it grew in his brain.”

It will not be lost on Wenger that Walcott’s finest moment that day was a toss-up between his final goal, and a classic piece of wing play when he cut in from the right and curled in a fabulous cross for Olivier Giroud, a classic centre forward, to head another for Arsenal.

The studio couch experts think they know better. But the coach, working daily with his players, probably knows best.

“'I think he loves the club and the club loves him,” Wenger said after the game, “and the reciprocity in love is the most difficult to find. “Theo has learned a lot because he is an intelligent player. And because he is intelligent, he will continue to improve,” Wenger continued. “You know the intensity of my desire is exactly the same as it was before the game. My desire is to extend his contract, he belongs here and hopefully we can do it.”

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