The moment Jack Wilshere first received the ball against Queens Park Rangers was one many fans had been yearning for an age. The ripple of applause that greeted his first touch conveyed an immense sense of relief. Relief that such a promising youngster, one trained at our very own Hale End Academy, was again dictating play on the carpet-like turf at the Emirates. The sprightly runs were back; hips swaying as he waltzed through the opposition ranks. The characteristic poised tongue was back; moving this way and that, almost transfixing his opponent before the telling blow was delivered. The angelic left foot was back; capable of inflicting a rival’s demise with the most ethereal pass. Jack was back.
After the outpouring of relief came hope. In fact, hope was the foundation, the cornerstone, of the cheers that met his arrival back on the scene. Before the season began in earnest, before a ball was kicked in competitive anger, Wilshere was handed the No. 10 shirt. “So what?” you may ask. “Abou Diaby wears the No. 2. Bacary Sagna, a right back, wears No. 3. Heck, William Gallas used to hold the coveted No. 10 that Jack now proudly sports on his back.” True enough, but this shirt number selection was patently different. Arsène Wenger is clear in his vision that Jack is fundamental to his latest iteration. After the dark days of injury, his seemingly endless time on the sidelines, Wenger’s decision would be a huge boost and sign of the continued faith he the manager, as well as the fans, had in our homegrown maestro:
“I feel Jack will be one of the leaders of this club and by giving him the No 10 shirt I want to show I am confident he will be the one who will lead the team one day.”
That day, at least in terms of style, may come sooner than we all think. Already, a difference can be seen in his presence both on and off the pitch. Most obvious is the extra muscle his long days in the gym have generated. His “core and body-strength have probably improved more than 100 per cent” helping him to cope with the extreme rigours that the Premier League regularly deals out. Mentally, too, there’s a change. Parenthood seems to have had a profound effect on the kid we last saw on the pitch in ’11. In recent interviews there’s a definite calm, a sureness of mind, that wasn’t always the case before his 524 days away from competitive first team action. Archie, his son, has quelled the beast somewhat but importantly his company, removing other distractions, has made Jack even more focused than before.
That focus will be needed more than ever as Arsenal strive to swim against the tide and meet targets on all fronts this season. It’s hardly fair to expect so much from a man of only 20 years coming off an extended injury layoff and expectations should be tempered for this very reason. However, it’s hard not to be enticed by previous memories. The mind goes back to the duels with Barcelona; Jack going toe to toe with some of the greatest talents to ever grace the game, and doing so brilliantly. With added maturity it’s only natural for fans to hope (yes, there’s that word again) for a better future with Wilshere at the vanguard.
When fully fit, there’s so much Jack can add to Arsenal’s game. His quick, precise forward passes are vital in his position. He adds an extra link between defence and attack, constantly looking forward for new openings in enemy lines. Wilshere has a special ability to turn, go past a man with ease, and keep the ball circulating at a high tempo. His jinking runs up-field are a fresh break from the mundane ‘pass and not-so-much move’ structure that has contributed to our recent “illusionary domination”. Of course, in the hustle and bustle of centre-field, there’s a time and a place to do so but he generally chooses his moment wisely. In the prolonged and inevitable absence of Diaby and Rosický, two central midfielders fond of a sharp pivot of the feet before embarking on a burst towards the opposition’s goal, Wilshere’s attacking exuberance will be key to adding variety to our game.
Speaking of pivots, Wilshere’s progressive thinking has affected the shape of Arsenal’s midfield. The 2-1 structure we’ve become accustomed to in recent years has been supplanted by a 1-2 to some extent, with Mikel Arteta often providing lone cover in front of the defence. The triangle has been tilted once again.
Along with taking a more advanced role in possession, Wilshere’s return also brought about a slight change in Arsenal’s work off-the-ball. Against Q.P.R and Manchester United he would harry his opposite number at every opportunity, forcing errors higher up the pitch than we’d generally managed earlier in the season. Before Jack strode back onto the pitch, Arsenal had been consistent in defending with relatively deep and compact banks of four, especially away from home. His presence altered this approach to a degree and one could argue the change has had both positive and negative effects on the team. The useful aspect has already been mentioned; Wilshere adds another point of attack, one that can add urgency when our play threatens to induce slumber.
The detrimental aspect lies with the knock-on effect on Arteta’s role. The immaculately- coiffured midfield general is vital to initiating Arsenal’s moves. His use of the ball is often swift and accurate, helping to keep play moving at a decent lick to shift the opposition out of position. The change to the midfield shape has slightly hindered play, however, further isolating him in both attacking and defensive phases. Teams are becoming increasingly wise to this with players such as Oscar, Wayne Rooney and Lewis Holtby paying him very close attention in recent meetings. “Shut down Arteta and you shut down Arsenal” is the mantra being recited by rival coaches and it’s certainly one that carries some truth. Passes that once went forward are becoming more lateral; the tempo dropping to soporific levels at times; the joyful spontaneity, once a cardinal feature of our game, being stifled by crises of confidence and opposition plans alike.
Of course, one should not be averse to thinking Arteta could do more to lose his newly-acquired shackles but there’s certainly a school of thought that dictates Wilshere could share the load to a greater degree, dropping deeper to assist those transitions. In the defensive phase, too, work can be done. Jack isn’t the worst in this regard by any means but his occasional impetuous nature, again his downfall at Old Trafford, can land us in trouble. It can be argued that a lack of match practice contributed to his rash tackle on Patrice Evra; his loose touch immediately beforehand was unquestionably uncharacteristic of the man.
It is clear, however, that Wilshere’s left foot has a devilish side, an edge that shouldn’t necessarily be completely eradicated but rather smoothed out as he continues to develop. Whether his advanced positioning, leaving him having to race back, exacerbates these desperate lunges into the tackle is debatable but, on the whole, he’d be better off taking a leaf out of Arteta’s book; jockeying his opponent rather than going to ground and fully committing himself for better or worse, and it’s often the latter.
It must be said that these flaws are to be expected. It’s often forgotten, amongst all the hype, that Wilshere has only played a season and a half of competitive Premier League football. The scope for improvement and the time in which to do so, fitness permitting, is still vast. There are tackles to refine, a knack for goals (plentiful at youth level – 13 in 19 U18 appearances at the age of 15) to rediscover, and the stranger that is his right foot to befriend. The midfield cohesion, or lack thereof up till this point, is also to be expected. Gone are the shirts of Fàbregas, Song and Nasri, no longer hanging in the dressing room waiting to be donned before battle. In their place lie those of Cazorla, Arteta and Podolski; new players with new strengths and weaknesses, new wavelengths to attune.
The amount of effort expended in order to come back to something close to his former self was huge but our latest No.10 acknowledges that “the hard work is not over yet.” The boss purrs at the prospect of his development but adds a significant caveat: “Jack is a great player but he will only be great if the team is great.” For both the team and Wilshere himself, the arduous journey to greatness now truly begins.