Over the last few weeks I have looked in depth at what Arsenal need to supplement their squad, both on the training ground and in the market (part 1 – part 2). There are also individuals in the squad for whom next season has a decisive feel to it. Whilst the end of Nicklas Bendtner’s contract signals the final swing of the axe for operation deadwood, there are players that will need to increase their personal contribution as well. The foremost of those will be Jack Wilshere.
Jack’s career to this point has been constantly worthy of analysis. On the one hand, his rise to first team prominence at such an early age gives you the feeling he has been around forever. On the other, the pregnant pauses in his Arsenal career due to injury make you inclined to disbelieve that he is as old as 22. In my 8 years or so of blogging about the club, I think only Theo Walcott has coaxed more ink from my biro (I hope that didn’t sound like a questionable euphemism) and that’s purely because he’s a little older (now it definitely sounds like a questionable euphemism).
The number one objective for Wilshere last season was fitness and up until a fairly run of the mill impact injury in March, he achieved that objective. His performances improved in a quiet, understated sort of way. He scored more 5 goals and provided 4 assists, a career best, and appeared 35 times, 2 more times than in 2012-13. An improvement in all aspects in purely numerical terms. Like most young English players of any repute, Jack was subjected to the soda light of media hype from an early age.
In the immediate aftermath of the stress fracture that kept him out for close to 18 months, I had opined that a spell on the sidelines might not be a bad thing for Wilshere. In 2010-11 he played a total of 49 matches, with Fabregas and Diaby suffering from aches and pains and Denilson’s early promise slowly dwindling into incompetence. Wilshere won Arsenal’s player of the season in 2010-11 and his reputation was beginning to inflate. With any young player, especially a genuinely homegrown one, there is normally a pattern to observe in the behaviour of football supporters and the media.
A young player “bursts onto the scene” and delights our affections with his carefree ways. Much like an edgy young indie band cutting their first album in between trips to the job centre. They have no preconceptions of success and we have no preconceptions of their existence, so everything they do is new, edgy and exciting. They don’t over-think what they are doing and we, in turn, haven’t really come up with enough reasons to hate them yet. It’s a perfect storm for the kindling of a love affair. The biggest enemy to this relationship is familiarity and, ultimately, boredom.
Suddenly, like an infant that first recognises its own image in the mirror, the young whippersnapper becomes more aware of his place in the world. We, as observers, start to become over familiar and we begin to pick out things we don’t like. The new and exciting feeling we had of the youngster bursting onto the scene is fleeting and in turn, seeds of frustration begin to flower. We become pickier and more demanding just as the player becomes more inhibited and less of an unknown quantity to his opponents. It’s the imperfect storm.
I felt the initial injury may protect Wilshere from this algorithm and in a way it did. However, where once injury protected him from the hype, it’s now concealing the fact that Jack hasn’t improved to the extent that we expected. Somewhat fittingly, Jack’s slight progress last season was made all the more understated and quiet by the infinite improvement of Aaron Ramsey, which cast a protective shadow. The case of Ramsey is at once instructive and inspiring for Jack. At 22, there is no real cause for alarm just yet, but you are left with the impression that he stands at a crossroads.
Wilshere himself notes this, telling the Guardian newspaper recently, “I’m not young any more. I’m going to be 23 in January and that’s a good age for a footballer.” The issue is that, at the moment, Wilshere is not part of Arsenal’s best XI objectively speaking. Of course he’ll get plenty of games with another 50+ fixture season on the horizon, but still that fact would have been difficult to believe at the end of the 2010-11 season.
The World Cup didn’t really go as planned for Wilshere. The injury at the end of last season halted his progress and he lost his place in the England side to Jordan Henderson. Wilshere’s cameos against Italy and Costa Rica were listless by his own standards and, despite Henderson’s admirable but limited talents, Jack hardly made the decision to drop him look like an error from Hodgson. From Arsenal’s perspective it might have been a very convenient tournament for their number 10.
He didn’t play too much competitive football, but he managed to train in an intense manner without too much strenuous stuff on the pitch and maybe he worked off some of his rust in the white of England- a consequence free environment as far as Arsenal are concerned. However, there is a nagging sense that he’s not really learning to play with the sort of elan that would help him realise his potential.
Once again, his foot injury was borne of impetuousness. He simply did not need to go into a 50-50 with that much gusto in a meaningless friendly. Wilshere is beloved of Arsenal fans because of his vim and vigour, yet one of Arsenal’s biggest challenges is to coach some of the ‘bulldog spirit’ out of him. Patrick Barclay told the Gooner fanzine last season that “He (Wilshere) is a wonderful player, but sometimes he tries to take on the world, and then I think he looks quite ordinary.”
In the 5-1 demolition at Anfield, Wilshere lost his head early in the game when Liverpool raced into a two goal lead, totally abandoning Arteta at the base of Arsenal’s midfield in a bid to ‘take on the world.’ In the 6-3 defeat at Manchester City, he became so frustrated that he flipped the bird at the home support and landed himself with an avoidable suspension. Wilshere is a technically gifted footballer, he can allow his technique to dominate his performances without the need for quite so much bearing of teeth.
I wonder if the manager might give him a run on the right in the early stages of next season until Walcott is fit. Fabregas and Ramsey both spent some of their developmental years on the right and Wilshere played well there early last season in a kind of rotating midfield 4, orbiting around behind Mesut Özil. It would allow Jack to drift in and join up with play from the right without having to wade through the meat and gravy of central midfield, where Wilshere often feels he needs to be Roy Keane incarnate.
Playing on the right potentially allows him to focus on the technical side of his game and utilise one of his biggest attributes, his beautiful dribbling. Cutting in from the right flank opens up the pitch for him without bogging him down too much with the spit and sawdust stuff. It was from this wide right berth that he scored twice against Marseille last November. Provided he stays fit, Wilshere will play plenty of games next season, but the time has come to deliver on his early promise. The player himself seems to recognise that, which is an encouraging sign. LD.
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