Wenger: Walcott ready for starting berth
Arsene Wenger has challenged Theo Walcott to produce the goods on a regular basis and cement his place in the Arsenal team next season.
The development of the 19-year-old forward has been one of the positives from a campaign that promised so much, yet failed to deliver silverware once again.
Walcott took his final tally to seven goals as Arsenal beat Sunderland 1-0 at the Stadium of Light yesterday to finish third in the Premier League, four points behind champions Manchester United.
With no European Cup final to look forward to, thoughts for Wenger now turn to the challenges ahead next season.
The Arsenal manager firmly believes with the right work ethic, Walcott can play a major part in the club's future - and not just as an impact player off the bench.
'Theo started the season as a promising young player, and he has finished the season as a guy who is ready to fight for a regular place in the side,' Wenger said.
'The next step for him is to be a guy who can produce regularly performances and efficiency.
'I am very hopeful because he can be decisive. He is sometimes maybe too much in and out of the game, but when he is in, he is completely in.'
Wenger revealed he saw Walcott's long-term role at the spearhead of the Arsenal attack.
'He is a player who is decisive and in his mind, he plays to be decisive,' said Wenger.
'Of course, when you play in midfield, you cannot always be decisive, you have to contribute as well to the defending and the attacking.
'It is not what he likes the most, that's why I believe in the future, he will be more a central striker.
'But for him, education wise, it is fantastic for him to play first in the middle because he has to work for the team, he has to run back, he has to close down and still keep his potential to go in behind the defenders and make a decision at the right moment.'
England international Walcott - who was a controversial inclusion in Sven-Goran Eriksson's ill-fated 2006 World Cup squad - has been included in the senior party by coach Fabio Capello for the forthcoming friendlies against the United States and Trinidad & Tobago.
And Wenger is in no doubt Walcott - signed from Southampton as a 16-year-old in January 2006 - can cut it at the highest level.
'Theo is ready to be in the squad,' said Wenger. 'We know he scores goals in the Premier League and I am confident that he will get his chance.'
Despite all the disappointments this season, which saw the young Gunners set the pace at the top of the Premier League only for their challenge to fade over the closing weeks along with any European dreams, Wenger is in no doubt his side 'can only be stronger' for their experiences.
'When you are a winner, you go through a process where you have to lose, and it is how much you learn from losing which makes you a winner the next time,' he said.
Whether or not winger Alexander Hleb shares that belief remains to be seen, with the player's agent claiming he is ready to buy out his contract under the `Webster clause' to free him to join Inter Milan.
Wenger, though, maintains he is not about to let anybody else follow midfielder Mathieu Flamini out of Emirates Stadium, and warned invoking the latest addition to FIFA's Article 17 is not as easy as it sounds.
A 'notice' must be handed to the club within 15 days of the end of the season - which would be May 26 - if Hleb, who missed the last three games of the season through suspension, wanted to terminate his contract under the new ruling or risk being banned from playing while the dispute was resolved through arbitration.
One player, though, who hopes to still have a future at Arsenal is veteran midfielder Gilberto Silva.
The Brazil captain, 31, has enjoyed a run in the first team over the final few matches and hopes to get a better idea of where he stands after a meeting with Wenger.
Gilberto told Arsenal's official website: 'Maybe in the next few days we will sit down and see what will happen with my future.
'Arsene has my number and I have his number, and I can come back [to London after holiday in Brazil] and solve the situation, but I have still got one more year on my contract.
'I have always expressed the desire to stay here to the end of my career. If that happens, it would be fantastic. I have been here six seasons now and it has all been amazing.
'I would be very happy to stay here and then discuss another contract to the end of my career.'
Wenger, meanwhile, intends to waste little time in securing some fresh faces.
The Arsenal manager indicated on Friday he expected to lands his top targets within 'the next two or three weeks'.
Those are reported to include £12million-rated Lyon winger Hatem Ben Arfa, Valencia duo Carlos Marchena and Raul Albiol as well as Stuttgart's German striker Mario Gomez.