Arsene Wenger has admitted that looming contract negotiations with Theo Walcott are unlikely to be straightforward but has told the England winger that he is now entering the "decisive phase" of his career.
Walcott is out of contract at Arsenal in 2016 but serious negotiations over a new deal have so far waited until he is back playing regularly after a year out following knee ligament surgery. He suffered the injury in a game against Tottenham last year and, after gesturing Arsenal's 2-0 lead to the Spurs fans as he left the pitch on a stretcher, he can expect a hostile reception at White Hart Lane today.
It is not the only serious injury of Walcott's career and Wenger believes that it is imperative for him to play a consistent run of matches. "Can he be world class? It is all there," said Wenger. "Theo's first quality is the quality of his reception. That means the timing of his movement, where he goes and the area he will get the ball. It is absolutely exceptional, one of the best in the world.
"I think just before he was injured was the best Theo I have ever seen. He had a good balance between being physical, using his pace, and the -quality of his finishing had improved tremendously.
"He's a great finisher now. I think what he needs is to be a long time without injury. He is 26, and it's the right age for him. It's now that is decisive for his career, 25 to 30."
Wenger hopes that he will spend those years at Arsenal but, after the protracted negotiations over Walcott's previous contract, is clearly not expecting a swift outcome when talks resume. Walcott will be well aware of what other England internationals are earning and his wider commercial value to Arsenal but, equally, the club will be conscious of the player's injury record since he arrived as the world's most expensive 16-year-old footballer. "He has still 18 months to go [on his contract]," said Wenger. "It's the sort of time we think about it. It's never easy."
Wenger has rather fewer concerns over how Walcott will handle the reception he will receive against Spurs today (Saturday). "He is strong enough to put up with it," said Wenger. "When you are a player you want to play big games - and this is a big game. That is what you love."
Walcott himself says that he will enjoy the atmosphere and, on his part at least, there are no hard feelings after he was also pelted with objects by Spurs fans when he was injured. "Me and the Tottenham fans have a good relationship in terms of the banter side of things," he said. "This is a massive game and it is all about the bragging rights. Any criticism won't affect me at all. It is enjoyable - and it's always a great atmosphere at White Hart Lane.
"It is probably the fixture I always look forward to playing in the most. It is one of the biggest games for both sets of fans and this year it is going to be tight."
Walcott is expected to start in the absence of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Alexis Sanchez, who is still -hoping to at least be among the substitutes. Sanchez has been suffering with a hamstring injury while Danny Welbeck is available again. Of Sanchez, Wenger said: "He feels he can defy the medical people because he is so keen to play that he thinks he can get over strains."
Jack Wilshere will also resume full training tomorrow after ankle surgery but has been told by Wenger that he must "master his life" after being photographed holding a shisha pipe while watching the Super Bowl in a bar on Sunday night. Wilshere has twice previously been photographed with a cigarette, while goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny was fined last month after being accused of smoking in the dressing room of Southampton's St Mary's Stadium.
"I've spoken with Jack and he's not a smoker," said Wenger. "He is of course sorry for what has happened. It's down to him to master his life. He had the day off the next day. When he's here he has to follow the rules that we dictate here, when he's out of his job it's his own responsibility to behave like he wants to behave."
Wenger also defended Wilshere's general levels of professionalism. "Every morning he's certainly one of the first in and every afternoon certainly the last out," said Wenger. "He works very hard, he's gone through some bad spells in his career and always recovered. It would be wrong to give him that kind of reputation because he works very hard."