Walcott’s Deal: A Good Ting for Arsenal
Arsenal’s July 31 announcement that forward Theo Walcott had signed a new four-year contract was a positive development in just about every respect.
As with any club news, particularly involving players and salaries, enthusiasts and detractors emerged. Some pointed to Walcott’s production since his last pay increase in early 2013 and argued he didn’t deserve a boost. Others said that the deal changed nothing about Arsenal’s attacking needs. A few worried about the implications of placing Walcott among the club’s top earners.
Those aren’t idle considerations, but they’re certainly not revelations to Arsenal’s leadership. Weighing those factors against the benefits of this agreement–and its timing–CEO Ivan Gazidis, manager Arsène Wenger, and their colleagues concluded that re-signing Walcott on enhanced terms was in the club’s interest.
You can see their logic: A Walcott deal reduces the risk to team chemistry, it makes a down payment on Walcott’s potential, and it fits the wage environment in which the club operates.
Mitigating the risk of chemical reaction
As the 2015-16 Premier League season approaches, the message throughout the Arsenal camp has emphasized team chemistry. I explored this phenomenon–and in modern, elite football it does appear to be one–in “Arsenal’s Pre-Season Cohesion.” The most recent expression was Wenger’s comment after the win over Chelsea in Sunday’s Community Shield: “Our game is based on togetherness.”
Imagine the threat a protracted contract saga would pose to this camaraderie. Stories and questions about Walcott’s future would dominate the early season. Although professional athletes are adept at compartmentalizing such distractions, all the efforts to build and communicate the team’s togetherness would be at risk. Just look at Jack Wilshere’s expression when Walcott was asked about his contract status after the Emirates Cup win (1:12 of this video). That’s not a man who wants to keep hearing about this drama.
Its persistence could have undone a major component of Arsenal’s competitive advantage for the season ahead, the shared long-term mindset. For that reason, it was wise for Gazidis and Wenger to finalize Walcott’s contract before the season starts.
Paying for potential
There was also wisdom in Arsenal’s decision to reward Walcott for his potential contributions, more than for his production so far. Instead of making the real error of overpaying for past performance, Arsenal are placing a high value on the impact Walcott can have in the future.
For one thing, he’s guaranteed to widen the manager’s attacking options. As Wenger observed to the press after the Community Shield,
I tried to see the options I have through the season. I felt today that I wanted to use Theo’s pace to go in behind. In the first half he worked very hard, didn’t get too much service, but he worked very hard. In the second half when Giroud came on I think he gave us a physical presence that was needed at that time as well. (Arsenal.com)
Walcott’s teammates have also made note of what he might bring. Aaron Ramsey: “He is a goalscorer. He has a load of goals for Arsenal, and I think he can carry that on and, I think, maybe get into the 100 [goal] club this year.” (Arsenal.com) That would take 24 goals, quite a few more than the 10 to 15 Wenger has said the team needs to add this season.
Wenger’s target would, though, be in line with what Walcott’s distinctive combination of speed and goal-scoring has delivered. As I detail in “In Search of More Arsenal Deals,” Walcott’s output from his 32 league starts in 2012-13 and from his limited action in 2014-15 compares favorably with the numbers of several strikers currently fancied by Arsenal supporters.
Still, an average of eight goals and less than six assists over the last five Premier League campaigns wouldn’t justify elevating Walcott to the club’s top echelon of earners. (Stats from OptaSports via whoscored.com.) But that’s hardly any of the rationale.
Accounting for the environment
Finally, we need to understand the agreement in the Premier League’s financial context. Although the wages and contract terms of individual players remain opaque, there’s little question that top players’ pay has risen considerably. In particular, the expenditures on wages among the top six clubs (Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool, Tottenham) appear to have increased, on average, by five percent per year since 2011, following several years of double-digit annual surges. (I’ve pieced this information together from several sources, including Sporting Intelligence, the Total Sportek blog, and the BBC.)
Reports of Walcott’s new salary range from £110,000 per week (£5.7 million per year) to £140,000 per week (£7.3 million per year). It’s been suggested the club retains image rights as part of the package, a higher-value proposition for the club.
In any case, at the top end of the reported salary range, Walcott would earn about as much as recent Liverpool acquisition Christian Benteke, Chelsea arrival Radamel Falcao, and Manchester City’s Samir Nasri. At nearer £110,000 per week we’ll find Liverpool’s Mario Balotelli, Manchester United’s Ashley Young, and Manchester City’s Eden Dzeko. It’s not unreasonable to say that Walcott has delivered more and promises more than any of those attacking players.
Inflation expectations also make the investment in Walcott appear sound. If salary growth continues at the recent rate, the average for top six clubs will increase 20 percent by 2019. Teammates’ and competitors’ pay will adjust upward, and Walcott will no longer have such a high relative standing. By my calculations, a £110,000 weekly salary in 2019 will look like £88,000 per week in today’s pay, while £140,000 in 2019 equates to today’s £112,000.
One last point of comparison. Liverpool paid £32.5 million to Aston Villa for Benteke, while Raheem Sterling cost Manchester City £44 to £49 million. By 2019, Arsenal will have paid Walcott £29 million (£140,000/week over four years). So its total expenditure will be less than the initial outlay top-six clubs have made in 2015 to acquire forwards with Premier League experience; that’s even before accounting for their salaries.
This financial context, the management of risk to team spirit, and the assessment of future performance make Arsenal’s investment in Walcott a thoughtful, constructive move.