There was some U21 action of interest last night as we beat Stoke 4-1 at the Emirates. Jack Wilshere and Serge Gnabry played the full game, Mikel Arteta for an hour, and there was 70+ minutes from Abou Diaby. A hat-trick from young striker Alex Iwobi helped Steve Gatting’s side come out on top, but from our point of view we’re looking at what the senior men did and what it means for the first team.
Where does Jack Wilshere come back into this team now? The answer, at this moment in time, is that he doesn’t. Bar injury or illness the best he can hope for is a place on the bench as his career enters a crucial period. Ignore talk of a move to Man City, they might well be interested but Arsenal won’t countenance a sale this summer. There’s too much invested in him, and too much untapped potential, for it happen this soon.
However, it’s impossible not to look at his situation and think that he’s now got to really kick on his career. The first challenge he has is to find a place back in the Arsenal team. It’s not easy to see where he fits in when he’s got Cazorla, Ramsey and even Coquelin ahead of him.
Cazorla played deep in the midfield against Liverpool with Ramsey pushed right, and his recent form has been such that he has to start games when he’s fit. Wilshere’s issue is that even if Cazorla is out for some reason, then Ramsey is the next best option in that position. So, doing enough to convince the manager he’s worth a place ahead of those two is going to be a big task for him – maybe one that might be easier next season if there’s more room in the squad, but for now he’s going to have to be patient and wait for his chance.
Then comes the next part: his performances have to make it difficult for the manager to leave him out. Earlier in the season there was a sense that Wilshere and Ramsey were being shoe-horned into the team to an extent. The manager seemed determined to use them as much as possible but only once, against Man City at home, did it look like a partnership that worked and on that day Wilshere was superb. He got a great goal and it was clearly his best performance of the season.
It’s almost impossible to provide any kind of statistical analysis of a player who has made just 9 Premier League appearances and 3 in the Champions League. You might also argue that in that first half of the season very few players played at the requisite level, but all the same there’s a sense that Wilshere’s career is passing him by rather too quickly without enough progress being made.
The smoking/shisha stuff is pretty tame really, but if you want to give the impression you’re absolutely serious about football you don’t get caught doing that. And, more crucially, if you are absolutely serious about being the best you can be, you don’t do it in the first place. So, now we’re in a period where Wilshere is likely to play back-up to what’s there, and very decent back-up it is too.
But it’s up to him to make himself a fixture in the first team with his performances, and I hope it’s a challenge that he can rise to.
As for the others, I spoke the other week about how I think Mikel Arteta still has a role to play in this team. I think accusations that his legs have gone are unfair. There’s no doubt he’s struggled this season but he was obviously playing with a underlying injury problem and that’s surely contributed to the output of those legs.
He’s never going to be a sliding, snarling Coquelin type player, but there’s always room for a player of his intelligence and assurance. I don’t see any reason why the two can’t play together at times either, and in this period of the season experience is often vital, so I expect him to play a more significant part than some people suspect.
That said, you can’t overlook the impact Coquelin has had since his return to the club. He’s been rewarded with a new deal and is now obviously very much part of the manager’s future plans. All the same, I don’t think Wenger is ready to consign Arteta to the past just yet (and with a new deal reportedly signed to keep him at the club until 2016, it’s obvious the regard he’s held in by the boss).
As for Diaby, it’s great to see him back playing, but I don’t think he’s ready to be anywhere near the squad yet. I think, at best, he might be an option from the bench, but until he can get a series of 90 minutes under his belt for the U21s then it’s too risky to start him in games – that’s assuming you can make a place for him in this team the way it’s playing right now.
Time is running out to do that this season and you have to wonder if we’ll see much of him between now and May. Although the manager hinted the decision regarding a new deal was down to the player – as long as he proved some kind of fitness – it’s still impossible to make a case for any new contract without a long spell of first team football, and I just don’t see how he’s going to get that right now.
Finally for today, some early injury news ahead of the Burnley game this weekend suggests Aaron Ramsey will be ok, Wojciech Szczesny and Laurent Koscielny are doubts, while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is not being rushed back from the hamstring injury he suffered against Man Utd in the FA Cup.
Maybe there’ll be some room in the squad for one or two of those who played for the U21s, and even Mathieu Debuchy who must be close to his comeback at this point. Anyway, more team news during the week as we get closer to the weekend kick off.
Tactics column later today, more from me tomorrow. Until then.