Of course I’m going to miss the fans, the manager, and the staff were fantastic and helped me along but I was given the opportunity to play for one of the biggest clubs in the world and it’s one of them that I couldn’t turn down, you know?
That’s Ashley Young in an interview after signing for Manchester United from Aston Villa. His “thanks” is delivered with the exact amount of flat, unaffected, emotionlessness one would expect from any perfunctory statement. “So long, thanks for all the fish, I can’t wait to play with Wayne Rooney.”
When it happens to Aston Villa we all say that it’s only natural: they are a feeder club who haven’t won anything significant since the 1980s. But when it happens to Arsenal (in the minds of Arsenal fans) it’s because the player is greedy, the board is failing miserably, or the manager is out of touch. And if Theo Walcott jumps ship after the career he’s had at the club, to go play for Liverpool, I might have to reassess whether or not Arsenal aren’t just being used as a training ground.
In many ways, Theo represents Arsene Wenger’s dreams. He’s a young, English player, whom the Frenchman purchased on the relative cheap, and has crafted into a decent Premier League player. Theo finished the last season with 32 League starts, a career high. He also managed to finish the season with 8 goals and 8 assists which is good enough for 12th place in assists, one more than Ashley Young.
It was a pretty good season for Theo by his own measuring stick. Career highs in starts, assists, shots, and objectively one of his best seasons as a professional. But there’s a glaring problem with Theo’s numbers that doesn’t show up until you look at his whole Arsenal career.
First, he’s never been good at crossing the ball and despite having a career high number of chances this season he only connected on 18 of 134 attempted crosses. That’s 13% and he averaged just 12% the season before and we can’t say that he didn’t have a target man, Robin van Persie has been the form striker of the last 18 months. 12% is just poor. To give you some perspective, Ashley Young averages 21% on his crosses and he’s hardly the best in the League.
Second, he is routinely in the top of the League in turnovers per game. This season he was 11th in the League in that category, coughing the ball up 2.3 times per game. Turnovers are an important measurement for Theo because they are the stat which counts the number of times per game that the player simply miscontrolls the ball: unforced errors, poor touch, dribbling out of play, etc.
Both of these numbers are consistent across Theo’s career and consistently a complaint by Arsenal fans. Now at the age of 23, Theo is hardly a complete player but his passing numbers have always been some of the worst on the club and his number of successful dribbles per game hover below 1 — which is not where you’d like a wing player to be. Sessegnon had similar numbers to Theo across the board, but managed nearly twice as many successful takeons. This doesn’t mean Theo is useless, just giving you some perspective.
The number that surprised me the most, however, was 54. If you look at the number of Premier League starts that Theo has managed in his six seasons at Arsenal, the total comes to 95. Of those 95 starts 51 have come since last season and even weirder, 47 have come since January of 2010. 54% of Theo Walcott’s starts have come in he last two years, 49% in the last 18 months. And this distortion of his career numbers is true across many categories for him: 65% of his League goals and 63% of his League assists have come in the last two seasons.
As I’ve written before, there’s a similar comparison with Robin van Persie’s last 18 months at Arsenal. The Dutchman and the Englishman have both managed around 50% of their Arsenal output in the last 18 months. And they both did so after cutting off negotiations with the club over a new contract. I don’t pretend to know what’s in either player’s heart and I certainly would never say that the player was taking it easy with Arsenal for the last 4.5 years. But can it simply be coincidence that both he and Robin van Persie cut off negotiations with Arsenal 18 months ago and both go on to have a career season?
And worse, what is Arsenal supposed to do? There’s a lot of handwringing over the club “letting their contracts run down” but what would you have done with a player like Theo who 18 months ago had never managed more than 16 League starts in a season and for whom consistency was an apparition? Hand him a bumper deal? I wouldn’t have.
In the end, if Theo wants to leave after everything that the club has done for him and wants to go to Liverpool of all clubs then it makes me wonder about his character but also the nature of Arsenal as a club. Because unlike Robin, for whom the case could be made that he was one of Arsenal’s best players over the last 6 years, there are no such plaudits for Theo. And unlike Robin who can at least hide behind the hobgoblin of “seeking a move to win trophies” Theo going to Liverpool is certainly not about that.
As for what Arsenal have become, I think Arsene’s grand plan of bringing in youth players and building up their loyalty as they forge a core of champions for years to come, a sort of Golden Generation, would take its death blow with Theo leaving. The idea was two-pronged: get a core of players to develop together and pay them well in their youth so that they will be loyal later. Cesc, Theo, Song, and Robin did develop together and are arguable three of the best players in the world in their respective positions. They should be challenging for the League title season after season together from here on out. But what happened is that we found out you can’t buy loyalty because someone can always come along and pay more — and whether that’s in gold, silverware, or shared DNA, it’s a form of payment.
So, what is Arsenal now? Are we a feeder club to Man City? A creche for foreign players to develop their talent in and then return home? A club which is a stepping stone to Liverpool? And what happens when Wilshere is fully developed? The Ox?
I can’t really tell, but I think the key thing is for Arsenal to replace Theo with someone better — which even given his mediocre numbers, history of injury, and poor touch, is easier said than done.