20 July 2015

Ex-scouse me? With Sterling gone, will Liverpool target Walcott?

After the sale of Raheem Sterling to Manchester City, Liverpool have got to be feeling the sting of losing yet another dangerous attacker so soon after seeing the south-bound Suárez enjoy so much success at Barça, while they stumbled to a sixth-place finish. With Sterling's £43.75m transfer-fee in their pocket and the need for a pacy winger-cum-forward, rumours of Rodgers targeting Walcott might have gained new life. His current contract runs out in June 2016, ramping up pressure to get a new deal signed—or transfer completed. Fortunately, it seems that the winger will put pen to paper on new Arsenal deal in coming days...

In the run-up to the 2012-13 campaign, as Walcott was going into the final year of his contract, we had seen van Persie and Song depart. The year before, of course, we had seen Clichy, Nasri, and Fàbregas leave, and the club seemed to be circling the drain. In that context, Walcott's drawn-out contract saga could have turned ominous. As it turned out, though, he re-upped, signing a new three-and-half-year deal that almost doubled his wages and (briefly) made him the highest paid player at the club.

Fast forward a few transfer-windows, and we've stanched the bleeding. No longer are key players leaving. Instead, we're cutting away the dead wood, selling off or refusing to renew contracts for marginal players like Squillaci, Santos, or Chamakh. Instead, we're enjoying the arrivals of players like Özil, Alexis, and Čech. Those who have chosen to leave in the last few years have had to come down a bit in the world, whether it be playing time, pay-packets, or prizes, if not all three.

At that level, then, Walcott has to be looking around the locker-room, the training ground, and the pitch and understanding that his best bet is to stay at Arsenal. Liverpool might wave a larger weekly wage under his nose, but what else can they offer him? Not lifestyle. Not Champions League football. Not, at this point, a legitimate shot at winning the Prem. Yes, he'd walk into the starting XI unchallenged.

Here's where it gets interesting. Almost since his arrival at Arsenal, he's had the right wing to himself for most of the last seven years. However, in the last two years, he's had to start considering the glut of attacking midfielders who can play on the right. Alexis. Oxlade-Chamberlain. Ramsey. Gnabry. He's no longer the automatic #1 on the wing. He has a choice: go to Liverpool and be a big fish in a littler pond, or stay at Arsenal and be a somewhat-smaller fish and a much-bigger pond. It's not as easy as it sounds. After all, those four competitors for time on the pitch are more versatile than Walcott.

Could he play through the middle? After all, he ravaged West Brom with a hat-trick and scored the opener/winner against Aston Villa in the FA Cup final. For as enticing as those accomplishments are, however, they're hardly enough to prove that he can play through the middle on a regular basis. The Baggies were mailing it in, and the Villans were overmatched. I don't see him dominating opponents like Chelsea or Man City—or even Swansea or Newcastle—in similar fashion.

To hear him talk, it does sound like a new deal will be done sooner rather than later:
My agent has talked to the club, I enjoy playing for this club. I want to do well for this club. I have always played with a smile on my face, always enjoyed playing for this club. It is one of the best groups I have been involved with.
From that, it seems clear that he wants to commit to Arsenal. Even through the fog of Orwellian doublespeak, his desire seems clear. A second, less-reported remark deserves further scrutiny:
It’s my first pre-season for two years now, so I want to work hard and get fit.
In other words, he's fought through injuries over the last two summers and has missed out on some vital time with new teammates. Picture him after a full summer of training with Alexis and Özil and Cazorla (with whom he's only had one summer to train). What might he achieve? He's 26 now, no longer a callow, fresh-faced youngster. He's in his prime and primed to achieve.

It's up to him. Does he want to waltz into Liverpool's starting lineup, or does he want to fight for his spot in Arsenal's?