There is an undoubted penchant for seeking conspiracies where there are none within football, especially when it comes to the long, slow-news days of the summer.
Injured players are secretly either pushing for a transfer, taking some sort of narcotic, or moonlighting as a barista for the Bilderburg Group. Perennial physio-botherers are a nuisance to the press, especially when they are meant to have already become England stars, and so it is perhaps not surprising that the line regarding Jack Wilshere has taken on a slightly bitter edge over the past season.
As a teenager, Wilshere already looked ready to take on Europe’s elite, standing toe-to-toe with the Barcelona midfield vaunted as one of the best of all-time. The Arsenal youngster was set to be at the heart of England’s revamp after a disastrous World Cup in 2010, embodying all the technical qualities needed for the modern game while retaining a British bulldog spirit.
Now 22, Wilshere has gone nowhere, except perhaps slightly backwards, and not only that, he has taken to occasionally smoking cigarettes!
His 2011/12 season was entirely wiped out by injury, and the following year was little better. Last season was tipped as his chance to reassert himself as the key man in Arsenal and England’s sides, but by the end of the campaign, WIlshere found himself struggling to even get a place in either team.
Ten years from now, there will be football fans who won’t be able to remember ever having seen Paul Scholes play, and will know the once reticent midfield genius only as the media shockjock he seems bent on becoming. That’s a shame, but I digress.
To be fair to Scholes, he has so far been spot on regarding Wilshere, first declaring that the 22-year-old has not developed much since he was 17, and then more recently stating that the best was yet to come from the Arsenal man. Neither are particularly dramatic conclusions to reach but how Arsenal and England ensure the latter is correct is a difficult question.
The solution is not likely to come by pushing Wilshere into an anchorman role alongside Aaron Ramsey. The England international is not a bad defender by any means, but he is too rash and too attacking to be a pure defensive midfielder.
Last season, Wilshere committed more fouls per 90 than made successful tackles (1.52 to 1.41). His energetic pressing is laudable, but he hasn’t got the positional sense to shield a back four. That he is being considered for the role at all demonstrates two things; firstly that Arsene Wenger is thinking about giving up the chase for a proper defensive midfielder this summer and, secondly, that Ramsey has truly usurped Wilshere in the Frenchman’s pecking order.
Ramsey kicked on last season in the manner many expected Wilshere to, adding goals to an impressive all round midfield game. The Welsh player outperformed Wilshere in every important area. He averaged more passes per game, scored and set up more goals and was far better than Wilshere defensively, making more tackles and interceptions and committing less fouls.
It wasn’t only Ramsey that moved past Wilshere last season, but also Jordan Henderson, who took his starting role in the England side. Here the difference is less pronounced than with his teammate, but Wilshere created chances by a lower rate per 90 (1.68 to 1.78) than Henderson, recorded a lower figure in terms of successful tackles per 90 (1.41 t0 1.70) and scored one fewer goal in total (three to four).
Wilshere can easily catch up with the pair but it’s important he stops being used as a jack-of-all-trades and nails down an actual role for both club and country. This means neither using him as a defensive midfielder nor expecting him to suddenly start turning in 15 goals a season.
Throughout his short career there has been an assumption that, at some point, Wilshere will start scoring lots of goals a la England stars like Scholes, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, but there has never been any evidence to support this idea.
In his career to date, Wilshere has five Premier League goals and that’s fine, as long as you aren’t relying on him to score more. Ramsey had only notched seven times in the league for Arsenal before last season’s 10, but the Welsh midfielder has a natural instinct for running on and beyond strikers or arriving late in the box to get on the end of crosses. Wilshere, meanwhile, is more content sitting deeper and pulling the strings.
That is probably why Wenger is considering using him as an anchorman, but Wilshere could only work alongside Ramsey if they play as equals, both expected to cover for the other when they roamed forward. Tying Wilshere deep is pointless, when on form his ability to carry the ball forward and create chances is the best part of his game.
Time is very much on Wilshere’s side; there is no need to declare next season, or even the year after it, to be decisive in his career. His luck with injuries will be as big a factor as anything else, but in this regard the emergence of Ramsey might aid him, as Wenger can use him more sparingly especially when he is in recovery.
Wilshere has all the attributes to become the great midfielder he promised to be in 2010/11. He can tackle, he can create, is a fine dribbler and he can even score the odd goal, but he needs a clear run free from injuries and he needs to be used in his best role at Arsenal.
If that means queuing quietly behind Ramsey for the moment so be it, but the best is very much still to come from Wilshere, and it’ll be worth the wait.