LONDON, May 24- Arsene Wenger expects hat-trick hero Theo Walcott to play more of a central role for Arsenal next season provided that fitness issues and contract negotiations are finally resolved.
Walcott scored three times in the opening 37 minutes as the Gunners rounded off their Premier League campaign with a 4-1 victory over West Bromwich Albion at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday.
The 26-year-old England winger has long expressed a desire to play more often in attack, rather than along the flanks.
But his hopes of doing so were hampered by a serious knee injury sustained in January 2014 which sidelined him for 10 months and affected his form as he slowly returned to full fitness this term.
However, following his virtuoso display against West Brom, Wenger explained that Walcott has the necessary attributes to rival Olivier Giroud as the spearhead of the Gunners’ attack in the future.
“I’ve always said that Theo can play in the middle because he has good movement and good finishing. And he did that well today,” Wenger said.
“He’s a good scorer but he has been out for nearly a year. And, in a football, that’s a long, long time to be back at your best, to regain your sharpness and confidence.
“Theo is the right age – 26 years old is a good age for a footballer. I just wish he stays free of injuries now. You have to be consistently present to express your full potential.”
– Contract impasse –
Walcott is now entering the final year of a three-and-a-half-year £100,000-a-week contract but having reached an impasse in recent weeks, Wenger confirmed that the club have started discussions with his representatives about a new deal.
“Without a hat-trick, with a hat-trick, we want him to stay. We are in negotiations now,” Wenger said.
“We’re starting to speak with his agent and that was before his hat-trick”
Wenger, who said he has no fresh injury worries ahead of the FA Cup final against Aston Villa on Saturday, felt his side would have given champions Chelsea a harder challenge for the Premier League title had it not been for their slow start in August and September.
Next season, he feels they will close the gap, especially as finishing third means they won’t have to negotiate a two-legged Champion League playoff in August.
“We can prepare well because we don’t have a qualifier for the Champions League now. That’s a massive thing as having to play away between two league game at the start of the season is never easy,” Wenger said.
Albion manager Tony Pulis praised the movement of Walcott but blamed the defeat on his own selection-making, saying that, following the outstanding 3-0 victory over Chelsea at The Hawthorns last Monday, he should have freshened up his starting XI.
“If anybody needs to take any criticism then it’s probably me. The Chelsea game took a lot out of the players. You could say today was a game too far,” he said.
Nevertheless, Pulis has transformed the club, guiding Albion away from the relegation zone and securing 13th place with a tally of 44 points.
Asked to sum up the season since he took the helm on January 2, replacing the sacked Alan Irvine, Pulis replied: “It’s been fantastic.
“This has probably been the toughest job I’ve had for all sort of reasons. But the players have been fantastic. They deserve a lot of credit.”
At 6am (BST) on Monday morning, Pulis will embark on a gruelling charity rowing challenge, which starts at Tower Bridge and will then cross the English Channel.
“Can I look ahead to next season?” he laughed. “I can’t do that yet. I’m going to spend seven days in a boat now for charity.
“I’m not looking forward to it but that’s what I’m thinking about now more anything else.”