Back to Jack

Tim Stillman column Arseblog

If you are over the age of 20, a loan spell usually forms the opening paragraph of your last chapter with Arsenal. Time and again in recent years since ‘Project Youth’ was closed off, players have been released on loan either to park problems (Podolski, Szczesny, Senderos, Perez, errr, Park) or because their wages are too high to sell them off (Santos, Denilson, Debuchy).

There are a few players with one year left on their current contracts and they branch off into two broad categories. Players for whom the club’s use has expired and players whose use for the club has reached its conclusion. Perched in a kind of limbo between those two stalls however, is Jack Wilshere. Jack has one year left to run on his deal and relations between Wilshere and the club appear to have cooled.

He asked for a temporary move to Bournemouth last summer as a kind of panic move after being excluded from Sam Allardyce’s first (and only) England squad. I documented why I thought that was a short sighted decision last September. Little has happened in the intervening year to cause me to reconsider that assessment.

I think, with a hint of regret, that Arsenal ought to have given up on Wilshere and taken the sum of money on offer from Manchester City two summers ago. I understand why they didn’t and why that was far from a straightforward call. Arsene wanted to give a talented, yet damaged midfielder the chance to heal and realise his potential at Arsenal.

I don’t think that was a purely emotional decision either, it’s logical if you think you have an immensely gifted player to wait until the flame has extinguished completely before cutting your losses. Wilshere exists in a kind of limbo because he went to Bournemouth and, well, he looked like a Bournemouth player.

Jack is not so much deadwood as damaged goods. He failed to hugely impress at Bournemouth and soon found himself on the bench. But he did at least stay fit until…..another injury in April, cruelly obtained at White Hart Lane. Wilshere did not win his England place back and could not convince a suitor to take a risk on him.

Often, we are guilty of over analysing the incidental in football. Wilshere removed all reference to Arsenal in his social media bios last year and did not mention the club once on any of his personal channels. Initially, it might seem high handed to identify something that trivial as evidence of ill feeling from the player to the club.

However, players’ social media accounts are sculpted very knowingly. The observation became pervasive enough for the player and ‘his people’ to correct it. They didn’t which suggests it was probably deliberate. That’s the kind of reactive, PR groomed world we live in. One of Wilshere’s more recent social media posts had the perfunctory air of a woman telling her partner that she is ‘fine’- the internationally accepted sign that she is anything but.

Bournemouth started off by playing Wilshere as the most advanced player in a midfield 3, with Harry Arter and Richard Surman providing the legs around him. This in itself is concerning, because it suggests that Eddie Howe did not think Wilshere had the legs to play in the deeper, connecting position to which he is more suited.

His early trademark was to make loping runs from deep and at Bournemouth, it looked as though he had lost the ability to cover significant ground. When the Cherries reverted to a midfield 4, Jack was dropped. While the Cherries were happy to spend £20m on fellow loanee Nathan Ake at the first opportunity, they made no such approach for Wilshere by the looks of it.

So Wilshere and Arsenal are stuck with one another for another few months at least. That being the case, they might as well try to find common ground. As far as Arsenal are concerned, it’s a low risk venture now. All of the risk has already been absorbed and realised. From this point, the biggest hazard is Wilshere suddenly realising his potential and walking away on a free transfer next summer.

But as it stands, he will leave on a free next summer anyway, so it might as well be on the back of a good season. Xhaka and Ramsey is Arsenal’s go to midfield partnership, but it’s difficult to trust the durability of Aaron Ramsey’s hamstrings. Arsenal could really do with a quality alternative (at the very least) in Ramsey’s role and challenging the Welshman’s position ought to be Jack’s primary aim.

Arsenal’s presence in the Europa League is a good opportunity for the fringe players to get some exposure and Wilshere currently sits in that category. Broadly speaking, Xhaka and Ramsey works because Xhaka moves the ball over long distances and Aaron Ramsey moves himself over long distances. Xhaka in particular needs mobility around him.

Jack’s skillset is a little different to Ramsey’s, but could conceivably work with Granit. If he can fine tune his fitness, Wilshere is still capable of carrying the ball long distances and, as Santi Cazorla demonstrated, that is a valuable commodity for Arsenal. There is of course the question as to whether two such left footed players as Xhaka and Wilshere can co-exist, but this question is seldom raised when two right footed players are paired together.

Wilshere has played in a deeper role for England, but I am still not convinced that he has the discipline to play there for the Gunners. He earned rave reviews playing there for his country largely because of what he produced in an attacking sense against defensive opposition. He was man of the match performance against Slovenia in 2015 because of his two goals, not because of his diligence in front of the defence.

Arsenal fans might reflect, wistfully, that the need for a number 8 might not have been so pressing had things turned out differently for Jack Wilshere and Abou Diaby. Though both have unquestionably been ravaged by injury, I think it has been blithely assumed that physical shortcomings were the sole barrier between the pair and world class status.

I am not so convinced myself. In 2008-09 Diaby played 37 games and in 2009-10 he played 45 and he was wildly inconsistent- veering maddeningly between brilliance and incompetence. Likewise, Wilshere has technical flaws in his game to address. In 2013, Patrick Barclay astutely observed, “I think Wilshere is a top class player. Until he tries to take on the world, then he becomes quite ordinary.”

Jack’s ‘Roy of the Rovers’ fetish was most painfully observed in a 5-1 defeat at Anfield in February 2014. As a rampant Liverpool side ripped into the Gunners, scoring four in the opening half an hour, Wilshere let his heart rule his head. With every concession, he became more convinced of the need to take on Liverpool single handedly. The gaps he left continued to gape and Liverpool gleefully availed of them.

Wilshere’s brains are almost entirely in his feet. He has the technique of an accomplished continental, but the football brain of a workmanlike, ‘up and at ‘em’ midfielder. He still needs the maturity to make his technique his master and relegate his more ‘combustible’ qualities to servants. I think the jury is still out on whether he is able to do that.

His ‘matador’ dribbling style, where he waits until an opponent is fully committed to a tackle before releasing the ball is effective in pulling teams out of shape. But it also means that his ankles are vulnerable to contact. Jack is incredibly one footed, often bending his left foot into obscure angles so that he doesn’t have to use his right.

This also affects his tackling technique where he often distorts his body into an unnatural angle and leaps in with his left, instead of executing a simpler block on his right side. It is perhaps unfair to zoom in on a single image and hold it up as evidence of a larger issue, but these recent shots of Jack slaloming past Carl Jenkinson in training illustrate how his loping gait leaves him susceptible to injury and it’s difficult to believe that this will ever correct itself.

Essentially, this season is something of a free hit for the club and Wilshere. There is a semi-vacancy in his favoured position. So the mutual usefulness of Arsenal to Jack and Jack to Arsenal has not quite expired yet. Sometimes, this sort of ‘arranged marriage’ scenario can work well enough (Francis Coquelin in 2014-15). Most of the time, it doesn’t (Nicklas Bendtner’s ‘Slight Return’ in 2013-14). Jack survived the transfer window, it remains to be seen whether the door is still open for him at Arsenal.

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