When Arsene Wenger was planning for the 2011-12 season, he was not too concerned with the loss of captain Cesc Fàbregas or Samir Nasri, the most influential player of the previous season.
There was a potent weapon in his Arsenal, a player who had been the recipient of the prestigious PFA young player of the year award and had been at Arsenal since the age of 8- Jack Wilshere.
However, the next biggest blow, after knowing that two star midfielders were leaving the club, was that Wilshere would be out for an undetermined period of time due to an ankle injury. The applecart that was upset by that news is yet to be steadied as six full seasons later, a 25-year-old Wilshere struggles to cement his place in the Arsenal team.
A player, who as recently as last year, had been touted to be the future Arsenal and English national team captain by the likes of Arsene Wenger and Steven Gerrard, has now been linked with loan moves to Championship sides such as Aston Villa.
Arsene Wenger, on his part, has clarified that he wishes Wilshere to have a continuous spell of football, something he has lacked due to the injuries he has suffered every now and then. It is a fair point too, given that the Arsenal man has now missed more than 150 games due to injuries, wherein he has been out for more than 1000 days, ever since the first injury he suffered in 2009. That is akin to missing three full seasons!
In the football world, where results are keenly awaited and loyalty has just remained a mere word in the dictionary, Wilshere seems to be a forgotten man. That is why, despite the abysmal performances of Arsenal’s midfield, the boy hailed by Marco Reus as ‘the perfect player’, has strangely not been suggested as an alternative.
All this comes at a time when dark clouds are again hovering over the Emirates Stadium and it seems like the summer of 2011 is clawing back. Alex Oxlade Chamberlain joined Liverpool and Alexis Sanchez came close to leaving for Manchester City. Mesut Özil is yet to sign on the dotted line and is in the final year of his contract. Shkodran Mustafi has been linked with the Serie A, while Hector Bellerin had been flirting with Barcelona.
However, unlike six years back, Arsenal have the man they so desperately wanted to have back then – Jack Wilshere. There for the taking, wanting to feel loved, paradoxically at a time when the manager and fans alike are looking for players who feel the emotions associated with the club.
To understand where the player fits in Arsenal’s scheme of things first requires a review of the preferred choices. Firstly, Arsenal’s midfield lacks leadership in crunch situations. Granit Xhaka, while he can pass well, has consistently exhibited the tendency to make mistakes. His bad passes have resulted in goals against Arsenal in each of their first three Premier League matches this season.
Furthermore, he particularly suffers in games when Arsenal are pressed by opponents. Arsene Wenger prefers to pair him with Aaron Ramsey, who has an extremely good box-to-box engine, but, like Xhaka, lacks the ability to link the defence and attack in such games. Compounding the problems further, Arsene Wenger pins his hopes on Mesut Özil, the playmaker who is supposed to orchestrate the game and ensure that enough chances are created.
However, when Xhaka-Ramsey or any of the other combinations are tried, the transition from defence to attack does not happen as none of them can counter the opposition press. Thus, it makes the attack, and Özil especially, look worse as they are nullified by a dual tactic – first by the opposition press and then by the inability of the midfield to give them the ball.
For example, take the case of Arsenal’s game last season against Bayern Munich at Allianz Arena. Xhaka completed less than one-third passes than those of Arturo Vidal or Xabi Alonso, both of whom played in the same position as him. Even in the FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City, which Arsenal won, each member of the City defence made more passes than the 24-year-old.
Thus, it is quite apparent the Swiss international does not help to control games when the opposition employs a high press. It is simply because he cannot manoeuvre himself out of a press and tends to pick the safest option – either sideways or backwards.
Wilshere, on the other hand, bases his game on wriggling out from tight spaces. It is worth remembering that the player made his name with an exceptional display against a Barcelona side that redefined the high press tactic.
Born with a natural inclination to play forward rather than sideways, Wilshere unsurprisingly does well on the statistics for forward passes. His receiving stance is also oriented in the forward direction – looking to get the ball such that space can be created for an attacking pass.
In that sense, he is akin to the likes of Xavi, Cesc Fàbregas, and Özil, who try to build the gameplay. It is not a mere coincidence that Arsenal’s best goals scored in recent times, against the likes of Barcelona, Norwich City, Sunderland, Swansea City, have always been with him in a pivotal position.
Now that Arsenal lack someone like him or the Spanish master Santi Cazorla, the pleasing-on-the-eye style that has made the club so famous also seems to be slowly disappearing. The correlation between having someone like Wilshere and Arsenal’s style of football becomes too obvious to be missed.
Patrick Vieira, when asked what Arsenal were lacking right now, spoke about the need for a ‘warrior’- someone who can take the battle to the opposition, who is willing to fight for every blade of grass. Jack Wilshere perfectly suits this description- technically flawless yet tenaciously gritty.
Fabio Capello is a fine judge of a player’s ability and he might have got a point when he likened Wilshere’s ability to lead as akin to that of Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini, and Raul Gonzalez, amongst the players he had managed in his long and illustrious managerial career. Almost all managers who have worked with him have touted Wilshere to become a captain in the future.
His recent red card in for Arsenal’s u23s, while it has been shown in negative light by many publications, seems to be the exact temper the Gunners currently lack. Wilshere is known to assert himself in midfield with his presence and likes to battle to stamp his authority. But, unlike the defensive midfielders who usually rely only on their brawn to do so, he also possesses the brain and technique.
Arsene Wenger seems to trust Wilshere’s ability, as do the fans, but the doubts seem to rest on his ability to play consistently. On that question hinges the decision – whether to rely on him or not. One contextual look, however, shows that Wilshere’s injury record seems to have been overrated to an extent.
Whenever he has been out for an extended period, it has tended to be due to vicious tackles, such as that by Paddy McNair which twisted his ankle at a horrible angle, or when Daniel Agger collided with him when both trying to win a ground duel. He played 27 games last season at Bournemouth and appeared well on his way to finish the season with a seemingly good record, only to suffer another injury.
This time, his ankle was caught by Harry Kane’s boot. Thus, Wilshere’s fitness seems more reliable in comparison as it’s not always a muscle injury. Sometimes we tend to look outside when there are issues and overlook what we possess internally. Jack Wilshere has all the ingredients necessary for being the man Arsenal are looking for so desperately – grace, finesse, leadership, loyalty. He is the man with the key.
The question is will Arsene Wenger, the man who has always stood by him, turn towards him to unlock Arsenal’s season?