Sunday, December 10, 2023

Wilshere’s Bournemouth Ultimatum

This Saturday, Jack Wilshere will pull on an AFC Bournemouth shirt, as the Cherries take on West Bromwich Albion on the south coast. For Wilshere, this will represent a new and quite surprising chapter as he seeks to get his career back on track. For the most part, his talent has remained unrealised due to a series of impact injuries. On the surface, a loan spell at Bournemouth is a good opportunity to ascertain whether his body can withstand the rigours of regular football.

Wilshere has two years left on his Gunners’ contract and the club will probably monitor his progress as they decide on the terms of his next deal – should they choose to offer him one. But it’s difficult not to suspect that the potential upsides to this loan agreement are being retrofitted after the fact. Few suggested that a loan spell might be a good option for Jack prior to the shock move to Bournemouth coming to fruition.

I have my doubts as to how planned this arrangement actually was. Concerns over his fitness are no more pronounced now than they were back in May, so it seems odd that the deal materialised in the final 48 hours of the transfer window. Jack was introduced from the bench in the Leicester and Watford games so far this season. It is difficult for me to believe that he would have been used in this way with a potential loan agreement in the offing.

It seems that a discussion must have been had in the aftermath of the Watford match. Whether or not this discussion was influenced by, or maybe even catalysed by his omission from the England squad the day after the game at Vicarage Road is open to conjecture. Wilshere has made it very obvious that representing England is a career priority. If that was a motivating factor then it seems a little impetuous given that we are not in a tournament year and only three games into the season.

The more I reflect, the more I worry that this move will see his career plateau. Loan deals to the lower reaches of the Premier League are all well and good for promising teenagers, but players that take a step down in their mid-20s often fail to rescale the ladder. That Wilshere was used as a substitute – despite a pre-season truncated by his Euro 2016 involvement and a knock picked up in training – illustrates that he was very much in the manager’s thinking. Arsenal have a heavy programme of fixtures and a poor injury record. Further issues with Jack’s fitness would probably have been realised without a loan move.

Jack made a fairly pithy seeming post on his Twitter account, ahead of Warren Cummings’ testimonial at the weekend. Wilshere tweeted that he was looking forward to “finally getting some minutes.” He has played for 37 minutes in competitive fixtures for the Gunners this season, quite why these have been discounted from his memory in favour of 45 testimonial minutes remains unclear. (Leaving aside the minutes that he played at Euro 2016). It does at least imply that not everything is hunky dory in Jack’s mind.

I think the real danger for Wilshere is that this Arsenal team is passing him by. The injury enforced pauses between appearances are not his fault. However, having made only 5 appearances in the last two seasons, the team has become accustomed to playing without him. Arsenal are in a period of transition in midfield; since Jack’s last vaguely prolonged period of involvement, Xhaka and Elneny have been signed, Francis Coquelin has re-emerged and Rosicky, Arteta and Flamini have all left. If I were to overegg the pudding here, I would include Abou Diaby in the list of central midfield departures.

Arsene Wenger is reconstructing his midfield and there are places up for grabs. Thus far, Arsene has adopted three different double pivots in the opening three games. There is no better time for Jack to stake his claim as the future of the Gunners’ midfield than now, when there are so few established partnerships in that area. The risk of spending a year away from the club is that another imagining of the engine room will be fashioned in his absence. Arsenal are far more used to his absences than his appearances.

Jack clearly remained a big part of Arsenal’s plans, but the fact that they signed off on the loan deal despite this suggests that they harbour doubts. Abou Diaby was never loaned out, how do you think Arsenal would have reacted if Robin van Persie had suggested that he might need a temporary move for fitness reasons in 2008? The manager has a habit of fighting for those that he really believes in; look at his continued insistence on playing Ramsey into form when his performances were circling the U-bend circa 2012.

Arsene made some cryptic comments about the appetite of young players following the signing of Rob Holding. “What I think will happen is that you will have more and more players coming out of the lower leagues who have had to fight their way through. Compare that with a player who has been educated here, who has had Champions League for 17 years, who has not known anything else. It’s not a dream, it’s normal for him.”

For many of us, these comments sent our Theo Walcott klaxons into overdrive, but Wilshere fits this profile too. Perhaps a spell in the lower reaches of the league will redouble that hunger in him. Yet, as I said earlier, I am less convinced that this process works in reverse. Without wishing to indulge tabloid hyperbole of some of Wilshere’s off pitch ‘indiscretions’, continually being caught in nightclub situations, or being photographed with a crafty cigarillo suggest a lack of tact on his part.

Impetuousness, whilst a foible, is not a terminal defect for a footballer. Ian Wright, Francesc Fabregas and even Dennis Bergkamp were impetuous from time to time. Yet Jack has plenty of form for hasty decisions on and off the pitch. I am minded of Patrick Barclay’s 2014 assertion that “Wilshere is world class on his day, but sometimes he tries to take on the world and when he does, he looks very ordinary.”

Jack is a player with a highly technical skillset, but sometimes I get the impression that he allows his Roy Race fantasies to overpower his more natural gifts. Basically, there is a nagging sense that he lacks a bit of maturity. Undoubtedly, regular football is a good panacea for this, but again, I am not sure how leaving Arsenal for a season produces any additional benefit compared to him remaining. Whilst it would be foolish to write him off in perpetuity, I find it difficult not to worry.

I am not convinced that any of the supposed benefits of him joining Bournemouth would not be just as likely realised at Arsenal. If his body is unable to stand the travails of the season with the Cherries, it will certainly make it difficult for the club to offload him next summer. At least if those fears were realised at Arsenal, prospective buyers might harbour suspicions over the medical care Jack received in North London. Perhaps in hindsight, the club should have encouraged greater interest last summer, when his contract was stronger and there were slightly fewer items on his injury tab.

But my central concern is that Arsenal’s midfield is a lump of soft and doughy clay at the moment and Wilshere will again miss the chance to cement a place. There are few established partnerships and the manager has shown a willingness to rotate his options. It feels as though Jack has volunteered himself into exile. By now, he is something of a stranger to this team tactically speaking, absence makes the heart grow fonder, but it also has a habit of making the memory hazier.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto

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