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Arsenal misread situation with Walcott

So now it's Theo Walcott's turn. You would have assumed that having raised more than $60 million through the sale of Robin van Persie to Manchester United and Alex Song to Barcelona -- two deals that also cleared roughly enough salary space to pay the wages of the Gunners' three big summer signings, Olivier Giroud, Lukas Podolski and Santi Cazorla -- Arsenal could easily lock up its flying winger.

But no. Contract talks have apparently stalled with Walcott balking at a five-year deal worth around $6.1 million per season. And the club has reportedly given him an ultimatum: make up your mind in the next 24 hours or we'll sell. After all, he'll become a free agent next June, which means Arsenal would lose him for nothing.

If it feels familiar, that's because it is. We can debate the merits of Arsenal selling off its best players and replacing them with cheaper options elsewhere. Many have. What's curious here is how badly this has been handled and how ready Arsenal has been to gamble.

Let's be clear: This is nothing like Van Persie. Arsenal realized a long time ago that he wasn't going to put pen to paper, so it shifted him. Because the club did it early in the window, it got a very good price: about $37.5 million.

Hindsight, of course, is 20-20, and Arsenal critics will point out that the club should never have allowed Van Persie to get to this stage, that it should have locked him up earlier. That's fine, but running a football club is an imperfect science: You get some right, you get some wrong. What matters is being alert enough to remedy your errors, and Arsenal did that.

Walcott is different because of the way the club evidently failed to read the situation. It's fine to play hardball and give ultimatums, but you need to give yourself a margin of error. You can't have manager Arsene Wenger saying, as recently as last week, that Walcott "is very important" to the club and then let it get to this stage, one where you're ready to flog him for little more than the price of a Matt Jarvis.

I also realize that Walcott divides opinion.

To some he's been overhyped since age 16, his potential was never all that and, besides, he'll never live up to it. They'll cite a stat like this one from, which claims that of the 45 Premier League players to have attempted at least 100 crosses last year, Walcott was the least accurate, finding a teammate less than 1 in 7 times.

Others will point out that Walcott has intangibles like speed, balance and technique that make him unique. They'll remind you that he's still just 23 and can yet develop into a superstar. And they'll throw up stats of their own, reminding you that Walcott had eight goals and 10 assists last season and that only 10 players in the league combined for more.

Whatever the case, Wenger evidently believes in Walcott enough to give him a five-year deal that would make him one of the club's highest earners. Yet the offer of $6.1 million isn't great for a starting winger on a top-six side. It's less than what many of Walcott's colleagues at clubs of equivalent stature earn. But Arsenal has a certain wage structure it believes in, and within that context, it's about as good as it gets.

If the club wants to play it that way and be conservative with its wages (the funny thing is that overall, Arsenal isn't really that tight: its cumulative wage bill is higher than Liverpool's or Tottenham's), that's the Gunners' prerogative. The problem lies in the execution. A clever negotiator knows which buttons to push and has a sense of what his counterpart wants, expects and is likely to do.

Business school libraries are filled with plenty of books on this very issue. You would think that after seven years of daily dealings with Walcott, Arsenal would have had a better idea of his expectations. And if the club couldn't match them, it would do what's best and sell him early in the summer, when it could get the best possible fee.

So what happens now? Liverpool and Manchester City are both mentioned as potential suitors and both could offer the $19 million to $23 million required to bring him on board. You would also imagine both could satisfy Walcott's wage demands, although in Liverpool's case, it's unlikely it would go far beyond Arsenal's offer.

For Walcott, though, going to City would mean competing with the likes of David Silva and Sergio Aguero for playing time. It likely would mean a lot of games spent on the bench on his backside. There is, on paper, less competition at Liverpool. But there is also plenty of uncertainty, and it's worth wondering if, right now, Anfield really represents an upgrade over the Emirates.

From Walcott's perspective, simply staying put might not be such a bad thing. You spin it by saying that you want to prove to the club that you're worth whatever it is you're asking for. And at that stage, the ball is in Wenger's court. After all, Arsenal can't sell Walcott against his will, nor are the Gunners likely to freeze him out simply because he won't extend his deal. He'd stay and move ever closer to free agency, and there would be little the club could do about it.

Walcott now has the upper hand in these negotiations. It doesn't mean the Gunners can't turn it around, just that it is that much more difficult. The frustrating thing for Arsenal fans is that it did not need to be this way.

Gabriele Marcotti is a London-based journalist and broadcaster who covers world soccer. He is the author of three books, the world soccer columnist for The Times of London and a correspondent for the Italian daily Corriere dello Sport. You can catch him on ESPN Press Pass and read him here twice a week. Follow him on Twitter: @marcotti.


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