Jack On Both Sides

Tim Stillman column Arseblog

Jack Wilshere has clocked up just over 1,000 minutes across 14 matches since joining Bournemouth on loan in late August. Back in September, I wrote a piece questioning his decision (and it did seem to be very much his decision, as opposed to Arsenal’s) to leave the club on loan. With the season at the half way point, it’s a good time to assess how valuable his temporary sojourn to the south coast has proved.

The fact that he has remained fit for the duration of his loan spell to date poses uncomfortable questions for the quality of Arsenal’s much maligned medical care. Correlation does not necessarily equal causation of course. I think it’s important to note the type of injury Wilshere typically suffers too. His chequered medical history is not one of aches and strains, a hamstring pull here, a calf strain there, but one of forceful impact injuries that he has been slow to recover from.

Having not suffered this type of injury yet, he has not been put to the test in that respect. It might also tell you a little about how opponents approach games against Arsenal’s midfield compared to how they deal with Bournemouth’s. (And how Bournemouth defenders treat training sessions compared to Gabriel). There again, Jack might consider this a big vindication of his decision to regain his fitness away from the heavily manned, sharpened studded midfields typically faced by the Gunners. He’s effectively taken his ankles on a sorely needed vacation.

I felt this loan spell would prove to be the prologue for the end of his Arsenal career and I still think that. I say that with a note of lament as an Arsenal fan, but Jack Wilshere is a professional footballer looking after his own career and Arsenal Football Club does not represent the end of the rainbow for him in the way that it does for me. I think being virtually guaranteed a place in the starting line-up every single week with the Cherries will prove to be a big pull when he weighs up his future in North London.

I can’t see him returning now that he has tasted the sweet nectar of star treatment. I think he will find it difficult to come back to Arsenal and fight for his place, possibly suffering the effects of rotation in a team that plays three times a week. Wilshere has always been a player that relies on rhythm, he has paid an additional levy on his injury enforced absences because he needs to string a few games together before we see him approach his ceiling again.

Part of my quibble with his decision to leave revolved around Arsenal’s unsettled midfield. I felt that we would see a lot of chopping and changing in the engine room as Arsene tinkers to find the perfect formula. I felt that Jack was effectively opting out of the chance to stake his claim whilst the midfield remained a lump of unmoulded clay. We are at the halfway point of the season and I do not think that Arsene is any closer to solving that issue.

He still has not found an alternative partnership to Coqzorla that truly functions. Arsene appears to have settled on Xhaka and Coquelin in recent games, but they seem suited to specific types of game, which explains their hit and miss showing thus far. Though the club were well aware of Cazorla’s achilles woes back in August, Wenger would have found it difficult to promise Wilshere a genuine shot at becoming the heir apparent to Santi Cazorla. In hindsight, we now know that Ramsey and Cazorla have been simultaneously missing for significant periods of the season.

With a little more patience, I always felt Jack would figure strongly in the central midfield conversation. With Cazorla injured and Rosicky gone, Wilshere is close to a one of a kind in the current squad and I think his qualities would give Arsene food for thought at the moment. I wrote last week about Arsenal’s struggles when faced with a high octane pressing game. A focused and mature Wilshere seems an ideal candidate to help the team circumnavigate the press.

That said, occasionally Jack has become flustered under pressure. He played during the Gunners’ 5-1 annihilation at Anfield in February 2014 and wilted under the headlights of Liverpool’s high press. This is not because he lacks the technical qualities to handle it, more because he allowed his temperament to get the better of him as he tried to indulge his Roy of the Rovers fantasy, abandoning the base of the midfield as Arsenal trailed. Patrick Barclay once wrote of Wilshere, “he is a fantastic player, until he tries to take on the world. Then I think he looks quite ordinary.”

That said, this fixture occurred nearly three years ago now. He has since played for England in a deep lying role to good effect- albeit in the less intense arena of international football. At Bournemouth, he has almost become a sort of elder statesman figure given his level of top level experience compared with his teammates and this seems to have helped him mature in the handful of games where I have been able to watch him. He is yet to register a goal or and has 1 assist on the south coast, but Santi Cazorla has not wrecked either of those curves since being deployed in a deeper role.

I think Wilshere would be figuring in the Arsenal team regularly enough at this point and would have been given the opportunity to state his case as a long term successor to Cazorla. Though it took him several weeks at Bournemouth to reach a good level of performance. Earlier in the season, Arsene was reluctant to move away from his trusted Coqzorla axis until Mustafi was fully inaugurated into the defence and Alexis had settled into his new centre forward role.

So Wilshere probably would not have gotten regular football in the early autumn and we might have seen some of his rustier performances in the wake of Cazorla’s injury in any case. £35m Granit Xhaka struggled for regular minutes until recently, so Jack would likely have suffered the same fate. He might have seen game time in the wide role that Iwobi has often played this season and that Aaron Ramsey played last season. However, Jack seems no keener on this role than Ramsey is.

For the sake of his Arsenal career, I still think Jack’s best option would have been to stay. Cazorla will be out for a while yet and Wilshere could have really built his case over this period. I never doubted the player’s assessment that he would not get regular football in the first half of the campaign, but I felt he would’ve had the opportunity to force a change in that situation eventually. Wenger’s midfield is still as malleable as ever.

The loss of his place in the England squad seemed to provide the catalyst for his decision to leave and with no internationals until March and no tournament until 2018, I still think that was short sighted, even if I accept how much playing for England means to him. However, I think from his own personal standpoint, Jack is probably happy with his decision at this stage.

My inkling is that he will look to stay with Bournemouth (if they can come close to matching his salary demands) on the proviso that he can leave should his performances invite interest from the likes of Manchester City or Chelsea subsequently. Lassana Diarra left Arsenal for Pompey in 2008 on a similar condition and ended up piquing the interest of Real Madrid. I am convinced we will not see Wilshere in an Arsenal shirt again, which I happen to think is quite sad. I am just not sure that he necessarily feels that way.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto


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