Arsène Wenger praised the professionalism of Theo Walcott after the winger scored a hat-trick on Tuesday night amid a long-running contract dispute with the club. Walcott's deal expires at the end of this season, he has not signed a new one and Tuesday's game was only his fourth start of the season.
Walcott scored in added time at the end of the first half, the second half and extra time as Arsenal recovered from 4-0 down to beat Reading 7-5 in one of the most remarkable cup games in living memory.
"I always said that I want to keep him," Wenger said afterwards. "Apart from the contract talks we have to give him credit for the way he is committed and for the team and the way he behaves."
Walcott has said publicly that he is particularly keen to play up front more for Arsenal. Although he was playing on the right wing on Tuesday night, his running and finishing were excellent and Wenger insisted that he agreed with Walcott that he could move through the middle.
"He was superb," the manager said. "I always said that he will be a striker so we are on the same wavelength there. He has something, first of all he is a good finisher now. The way he scored the first goal, the second I believe as well he knows where to be in the box for the rebounds. I like that, because that is a quality of the striker that you cannot give to anybody. You feel it or you don't. He has the qualities to play there."
Given that Walcott could leave on a free transfer next summer, there will be pressure to sell him in January if he has not agreed a new deal. The longer the impasse continues, the more likely it is that he will be sold.
But Wenger reasserted his public commitment to the 23-year-old. When asked whether Walcott would be a striker at Arsenal, Wenger said "that is what I hope". But when it was suggested that the hat-trick would increase the cost of keeping Walcott, Wenger joked: "I will speak to my finance minister."
Walcott was delighted after the game. "The spirit has got to be the best thing we showed," he said. "We need to turn that into the Premier League now. The most important thing was to get a win to get into the next round and we're there."