TFN’s Simon Smith returns with an in-depth look at where Jack Wilshere is right now…
In September 2013, Jack Wilshere gave an interview looking forward to the season ahead, what he hoped to achieve, what Arsenal might accomplish and in particular how he might go about amending his “joke” of a goalscoring record. Somewhere along the line, everything went terribly wrong: he became “terrible”, he couldn’t match the performances of the now meteorically rising Aaron Ramsey and he was a worse player than his rose tinted breakthrough season. The criticism that Jack needed to improve was everywhere, least of all from the man himself, and yet a year later the very season he looked forward to was being used as a stick to beat him with.
In the shadow of club teammates, incapable of stepping up for the retiring Gerard and Lampard for Country, humiliated in the now infamous Paul Scholes interview and seemingly more interested in his off field smoking habits: it was hard to envisage a way back for Jack Wilshere. Somehow Autumn has set in with a perceived upturn in Jack’s fortunes. Four Four Two recently ran an article asking titled “Is Jack Back”, his England performances have been much praised despite the unfamiliar role at the base of the diamond, and at times he has looked more dependable for Arsenal than recent years. In a year of extremes for the player, are we seeing a reinvigorated Jack Wilshere?
I find the narrative hard to understand, a product of the 24 hour nature of football where players must be playing poorly or well, in or out of form, and celebrated or berated whether we watched their game or not. Jack Wilshere is said to be in better form now than last season, but ask yourself why. Specifically, what is he doing differently game by game that has improved his performances?
On inspection, it seems not a great deal. Wilshere has been playing in a similar style for Arsenal since his first full season in 2010-11, where the ballsy and unexpected frequency with which he dazzled in a surprise package Arsenal team announced his arrival. This mythical Jack of four years ago is the yardstick against which he will always be measured. We were right to praise him at the time; the ease with which he built a relationship with Fabregas, the enthusiasm that went hand in hand with the talent, and perhaps most of all the composure he showed when trying to run the midfield against Barcelona at their absolute peak.
But we were wrong to get carried away. This was a player whose exciting nature allowed us to forget his flaws, his rough edges and his need to improve. The Guardian called him “Arsenal’s Xavi” after the Champion’s League exit, the hope that England might have discovered a rare and cultured midfielder capable of game control ever present in reports. But this was a player who is a natural gambler – more a schoolboy in a Zidane shirt trying to dribble through the other midfield than a truly Spanish tempo-setter.
At his best Wilshere is a risk taker. His criticism is born of mistakes rather than lack of application, and yet his good and bad performances tend to depend on the rest of the team and the opposition rather than him doing anything different. For this reason the focus on so called sloppy errors in his game seems almost contradictory, for his bravery to play through these was once an undisputed worthy trait. Wilshere tends to behave the same in most games, the success of his game depending on how the opposition and teammates interact with him.
Alex Song has long been a joke figure in English football, but his role in anchoring Wilshere in their double pivot was underrated. Like or loathe him, Arsenal have lacked something in this area since his departure and with Song gone, the exposure a midfield featuring Jack offers the opposition has become more noticeable. The “mistakes” that his critics argue crept into his game are, in actual fact, more of an inevitability of his style. They have always been present, but when he was younger they were both better compensated for in a different team and more forgivable for an inexperienced player.
In fact compared to other English midfielders like Ross Barkley or Michael Carrick, I would argue Wilshere is surprisingly consistent: it is the changing players around him that have affected his game the most, for better and worse. For this reason his “revival” this season is as unjustified as his criticism the year before, in that his improvement in performances have rarely been down to a change in his own behaviour so much as a change in those around him.
Mikel Arteta, for example, is a midfield partner who brings out the absolute worst in Jack Wilshere. He controls the tempo of a game and can boost possession with his careful distribution, negating the need for Jack’s clever passing in deep areas and encouraging him further upfield where the defence becomes exposed. Furthermore, Arteta lacks pace (a trait which has been increasingly more obvious as he slows down and opposition try to isolate him) and his tackling is more thoughtful than tenacious. This tends to force Wilshere into being simultaneously more responsible for the team’s ball winning and more recklessly athletic in the way he goes about this.
Without wanting to diminish the captain’s contribution to Arsenal over the last three seasons, Arteta is probably the single biggest reason for Wilshere’s poor form. Other midfield partners consistently bring more praise from Jack’s game. For example, Ramsey and Wilshere is said to not work as a midfield partnership, but at least Jack’s role as the ball winner in this pairing can be done whilst his partner covers the ground as the runner in the partnership (instead of Jack feeling he must be all over the legs of all the opposition midfielders at once).
The least decorated Arsenal midfielder, Mathieu Flamini, provides the dirty work and aggression necessary to allow Wilshere freedom not only to stray forward but also to take charge of distribution. The pairing is hardly perfect but the manner, with which Wilshere appeared to play better than most his teammates in the recent defeat to Chelsea, whilst Flamini covered himself in no glory with an aggressive and unimaginative performance, can be seen as the result of this partnership’s dynamic.
More than anything, Wilshere is a player who has struggled to adapt. With Fabregas as the designated creator and Song the obvious destroyer, the freedom to flit between roles, act as distributer and then drive forwards suited him perfectly. Nowadays Arsenal’s midfield options offer no such level of assurance. Arteta is no dirty worker and colleagues such as Ramsey and Oxlade-Chamberlain offer creativity but steal too many of Jack’s traits of his worth to be appreciated.
Not enough focus was played on how he might improve as a player in the crucial 18-22 years that have instead flown by in a blur of negativity and injuries. Is Scholes’ criticism that he has not kicked on over this time valid? He has improved overall far more than many cynics appreciate since his breakthrough season, but along the same path he was already on: who has coached the rashness out of him, where is the intelligence to his build up, and when will he combine the ability to beat his man with the restraint to chose the safer option from time to time?
The other part of Scholes criticism focused on a supposed lack of desire to improve, that he had been distracted by other pursuits and somehow lost his love for the game. This seems a somewhat lazy criticism that nobody at Arsenal has been able to verify. Indeed, at times it seems he has almost too much passion for football – too much readiness in the tackle, an excess of heart with too little head – that hinders his ability to see improvements to make in his game. It seems doubtful where, if anywhere, he has lost any of that initial enthusiasm.
As a tactical player, Wilshere is one a great team could be built around, but increasingly he seems to be falling victim of a mentality whereby others are nailed on in fixed positions and he must be accommodated wherever there might be room. He has been allowed to develop into somebody who might flourish alongside, dare I speculate, a Khedira-type player. And yet whilst this happened, an opportunity to turn him into the player Arsenal want, that England now ask – some sort of turbo Carrick, a steroid Pirlo – has been missed during a period where his position has somewhat crystallised.
The celebration of any young English players in badly needed positions is a persisting and unhealthy trait. Calum Chambers has been widely acclaimed this season for the ease at which he has slotted into an unfamiliar central role in the Arsenal defence, a rapid rise to a full England debut, and the composed manner in which he handled Manchester City in the Community Shield. However, impressive though this has been, we must be careful not to allow the celebration of the good to become a simplification of all his performances in a “thumbs up” bracket.
Chambers is a player of immense potential, but he desperately needs to improve several aspects of his game over the next three years if he is to avoid falling victim of the Wilshere paradox. He is a young defender with such a penchant for fouls that he was fortunate not to be sent off against Chelsea and already finds himself suspended for five yellow cards by October. The obsession with unearthing and then celebrating young English talent means this has been overlooked to an extent. By 2016 this novelty will have worn off, but unless he has drastically reduced his recklessness he will come under heavy criticism from the same press who adore him now.
Much like Wilshere, this determination, an old school English mentality to prove oneself and a love for the game that throws players into the thick of it, has been eagerly welcomed. But as has been the case with Wilshere, it is unreasonable for a young player to be criticised in two or three years time for “failing to improve” when the early years of their career was so focused on not only ignoring but actively celebrating the recklessness that will be used to beat them with later in their career.
Wilshere has lost none of his love for the game, but without warning it seems that at some point English football lost some love for him. Perhaps with the right players around him we might more frequently see the player a nation hoped he would become, but we shouldn’t misunderstand that his problems are our making as much as his. The mistakes in his game are the result of his unwillingness to learn but also his continued willingness to try the unexpected: might it not be fairer to judge him on his ideas and the risks themselves rather than only their success?