A Clean Break

Jack Wilshere confirmed his Arsenal departure on Tuesday evening. The announcement has been in the post for some time. Wilshere removed all reference to Arsenal on his social media accounts at the end of the season and, while too much is often made of the social media activity of footballers, Jack has been leaving some cryptic messages of late.

Jack is, of course, no stranger to the sort of social media post designed to invite a flurry of “u ok, hon?” responses. But Wilshere’s Arsenal career, which promised so much, has drifted to a listless conclusion. In truth, it is in keeping with the recent trajectory of his career, which has rather wafted along like a leaf caught on a gentle breeze. A change of scenery is probably the best thing for him at this point.

At Arsenal, the ghost of his abbreviated potential mournfully skirts around him. The road from future star with the world at his feet to rotational squad player is not one that has served him well. In truth, as a fan it was a little bit depressing to witness such a promising career hampered by injuries, so one can only imagine what it must be like for the man himself.

His social media posts reveal a kind of ennui and frustration. He has not become a bad footballer by any stretch of the imagination, but having grown up in the glare of future greatness, it must be difficult to see that potential ever so slightly downgrade, despite your best efforts. It is easy to see why Arsenal fans fell in love with Wilshere, an academy product with a left foot woven from silk, but lined with a steel toecap.

At the beginning of last season, as he was eased into first team duties, Arsenal fans called his tune again and again, each chorus of “Soooooper, super Jack” a thinly veiled message to the manager to call for the saviour and arrest the Gunners’ decline. He was eased into action before becoming a regular feature in the team over the festive period.

But the pause between the chants for his name fell increasingly pregnant, as Arsenal fans quietly and privately realised that the gap between the idea of Jack Wilshere- based in the sepia tinted days of his late teens- and the Wilshere we see has grown. The harsh reality is that 2018 model Wilshere is a facsimile of the teenager that delighted us with his will o’ the wisp dribbling, his tongue flapping out of his mouth like a dog with his head poking out of the car window as he carefully negotiated challenges.

Wilshere is a serviceable squad player, but really I think he needs to rediscover his identity. He doesn’t have the physical intensity to play as he used to. He made the necessary decision to dispense with his ‘matador’ dribbling style, where he releases the ball at the very last second, pulling opponents out of shape as he did, but often also drawing painful contact on his ankles.

The issue is that Wilshere has not yet been able to replace his greatest attributes. He is a player lacking a USP. His physical limitations have come at an unfortunate time in the evolution of English football, with the new found fashion for pressing and high intensity sprints. For this reason, Gareth Southgate left Wilshere out of his England World Cup squad.

Southgate wants England to play a little like Liverpool and Tottenham, relying on accomplished athletes such as Lingard, Alli, Rashford and Sterling to force turnovers high up the pitch. Wilshere just cannot play this game and he cannot offer the same energy levels of Henderson or Dier in a more withdrawn role.

Personally, I think he should look to reinvent himself as a deep lying playmaker longer term. It is a role he was able to play for England in a midfield diamond under Roy Hodgson. Alongside an energetic, destructive type, he has the potential to retrain in this position. But Arsenal is not a good fit for him to remould his career any longer.

First of all, Arsenal have an established deep lying playmaker in Granit Xhaka. New boss Unai Emery has already set out his vision for a midfield that presses high up the pitch. He has also awarded Xhaka and Ainsley Maitland-Niles new contracts this summer (Mohammed Elneny inked new terms recently too). The writing was very much on the wall for Wilshere.

Away from home last season, Arsenal struggled when teams switched up the intensity of the match. Obviously, this was not solely down to Wilshere- far from it. But the Gunners probably need an injection of intensity into the middle of the park, which would explain the interest in Lucas Torreira. Xhaka is unlikely to be charged with pressing high up the pitch so it’s difficult to see Arsenal accommodating two players that won’t press and Xhaka is more crucial to the team than Jack.

Wilshere very often featured in the same side as Alex Iwobi. Wenger appreciated Iwobi because he is one of the few players in the squad capable of carrying the ball long distances, which used to be Jack’s personal brand. That an inconsistent Iwobi would feature in the same starting line-up as Wilshere demonstrated a lack of faith that he could play the role of provocateur any longer.

As the season progressed, Wenger moved him further up the pitch behind the strikers, preferring Ramsey as a number 8 due to the amount of ground the Welshman can cover. It was not a good fit, Wilshere’s game has always looked superior in a slightly more withdrawn position. Wenger underwent the same quandary as Eddie Howe when he managed Jack at Bournemouth- moving him from 8 to 10 and, eventually, to the bench.

Truth be told, were he Jacques Wilshère signed from St. Etienne in 2013, there would be a vastly reduced clamour for the retention of his services. Player and club have come to a mutual impasse and I think Jack realised that a while ago. The market is a good indicator of value and the calibre of clubs linked with him do not operate in the top bracket.

It seems to me that there was a hairline fracture in his emotional relationship with the club when he pushed for a deadline day loan move to Bournemouth in 2016. I think Jack is suffering from a conceptual dislocation too, insofar as his brain has still not quite adjusted to his altered physicality.

Jack needs to re-wire his muscle memory and I don’t think Arsenal is the right place for him to do that. Wilshere has, sadly, become accustomed to fractures and ruptures, but as far as his Arsenal story goes, a clean break is probably the best outcome for all parties.

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Renowned Arsenal historians Andy Kelly and Mark Andrews and I have written a book about the tumultuous early years of Arsenal Football Club covering the period 1886 – 1893. ‘Royal Arsenal- Champions of the South’ is available to order here.