The Nous That Jack Built

After yet another sluggish start to a game at St. Mary’s on Sunday, it didn’t take long for the chant of “Soooooper, Super Jack….” began to fill the cold afternoon air. Just 15 minutes into the game, the away end called for its anointed idol. This has happened regularly at away matches this season. Even as Lacazette, Özil, Alexis and Ramsey tore Everton to ribbons at Goodison Park in October, Wilshere’s name was chanted throughout.

It’s not difficult to understand why Wilshere so popular. Hailing from Hertfordshire, he came through the Arsenal academy, he’s a visibly very ‘busy’ player, which strikes a lot of the right notes with a British football crowd. His gifts are not subtle or nuanced and they make the blood rise pleasingly.

Jack offers that constant thread of promise, that, with his will o’ the wisp dribbling he “could make something happen.” His off the ball game still requires some development for my liking, though on Wednesday evening at West Ham, only Nacho Monreal combined more tackles and interceptions than Wilshere.

He also boasted the highest pass completion rate on the pitch and given how cheaply Arsenal have conceded possession in midfield this season, that’s very encouraging for his prospects. His quality is still evident, in flashes, as we saw for Giroud’s finely crafted goal in Belgrade. But it’s clear to see that injuries have taken their toll, he doesn’t quite have the athleticism to burst forward as regularly as he used to.

It’s telling that Arsene brought Alex Iwobi into the team alongside him against West Ham. Iwobi has some similar qualities to Jack, but it felt like an admission that the player doesn’t have the physical properties to play in a midfield 2 and carry the ball over long distances for a sustained period. Wenger has hinted at this very broadly during the campaign.

Eddie Howe came to a similar conclusion last season, moving Jack from central midfield, to the number 10 role and eventually, to the sub’s bench. That said, the fact that Wilshere played 90 minutes on Wednesday evening and didn’t fade, as he had in Europa League and Carabao Cup games earlier in the campaign, is very positive too. It will be interesting to see whether Arsene feels he has the energy to do it again against Newcastle on Saturday.

The clamour for Wilshere has been relatively simple to understand. I happen to think there has been a little projection going on; as fans we are so desperate to see the player fulfil his potential and I think some of his recent performances have been exaggerated. Granit Xhaka has also failed to convince at the base of the Gunners’ midfield and Wilshere is seen as a salve for that particular graze.

Wilshere also has qualities that the current team lacks. With the exception of Alexis, Arsenal don’t have many players capable of taking opponents on with the ball. Every good team needs a mixture of fire and ice and Arsenal are probably a little more on the rocks than they ought to be. The absence of Santi Cazorla is still felt because of his ability to dance his way out of tight crevices.

Jack is probably the closest approximation to Santi in the current squad- especially now the likes of Rosicky and Chamberlain have departed. But Wilshere’s main barrier to entry has been a lack of athleticism and the fact that he has the likes of Ramsey, Özil and Alexis ahead of him. It could be that he is still getting to grips with what his body is capable of. It’s probably sensible that he doesn’t try to sprint around like a man possessed.

He needs to choose his moments to gallop towards enemy fire, crossbow in hand. I don’t think he has quite developed that sense yet. But that’s not to say he cannot or will not. Much of his early promise was built on his explosiveness, his ability to pick up speed exponentially as he carried the ball from middle third to final third. The technique is still there, but I’m not sure “the burst” really is. At least, not on a regular basis.

It’s clear to see that there are some kinks to be worked out with the current Arsenal team and possibly the current system and often, in this scenario, the guy who isn’t playing is seen as the solution to this problem. That has certainly become the case with sections of the fan base and Jack Wilshere is seen as a quick fix to a complex issue. Though impressive he was against West Ham, it didn’t really change the general pattern of anodyne football.

All of that said, Jack has played infrequently in a team of second stringers and academy hopefuls for the majority of the season to date. It hasn’t been the most conducive environment for him to demonstrate whether he could flourish in the first team, alongside the likes of Mesut Özil and Alexandre Lacazette.

The injury to Aaron Ramsey gives him the opportunity to do that. Arsenal have had to reconfigure to accommodate Jack. Ramsey is probably the most dynamic athlete in the current squad and Jack won’t be able to cover the same sort of ground. But he doesn’t necessarily have to.

He is a different player and does not have to try to become a Ramsey replicant, he has the opportunity to bring his qualities to the role. Arsenal’s central midfield options are not enormously edifying. I doubt whether a midfield duo of Wilshere and Xhaka is mobile enough, but any combination involving Elneny or Coquelin is likely to lack imagination and creativity. Ramsey is essentially a midfielder and a forward simultaneously and none of his potential replacements can say the same.

Accommodating Özil and Wilshere centrally in a 4-2-3-1 isn’t straightforward. I don’t think Wilshere’s mobility issues abate any of the problems Xhaka gives the team in the deeper midfield role. . I think we might be in rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic mode in that respect. As we saw on Wednesday, Wilshere, Özil and Xhaka has an uncomfortably southpaw bias and none of them run beyond the striker in the manner that Ramsey does.

Jack, like many Arsenal players, is slightly handicapped by a squad assembled without a real idea of how to play. But he really has to use this period to reignite his Arsenal career. He requires a little bit of accommodation, but then it’s not like he is interrupting a well-oiled machine.

I think we could have been having this conversation 12 months ago had he not gone to Bournemouth in a fit of pique. I still believe that move set him back more than anything. It has been some months since he recovered from his latest injury, but he still looks a little short of that explosive burst of pace that he was famed for when he broke into the team around seven years ago.

I’m not convinced he will ever get it back entirely, he will have to doctor his game. Back then, Wilshere was a total firebrand, an all action figure capable of dictating entire games with a drop of the shoulder and a saunter upfield. In the last 18 months, that fire has flickered occasionally.

This flicker has often been cast as a roaring inferno by a group of fans that hold an eternal flame for the player. But he really needs to deliver consistently over the festive period, otherwise his Arsenal career will be extinguished come the summer. Wednesday evening was a good start.

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