I feel like I should start writing my “Ode to Jack Wilshere” post soon. You know, the one where I compile the statistical dossier of Jack’s career and we get all weepy eyed as he slowly slips into the Veil like Sirius Black during the battle at the Ministry of Magic.
I’ve seen a number of articles suggesting that Arsenal should pay whatever Jack wants and I understand this impulse. Jack has been at Arsenal his entire career, he’s the most talented player the academy has produced in 20 years, and there’s the not so small emotional factor that his career has been tragic.
I’m not going to pretend that this is a comprehensive history so let’s pick up at his highest moment. After a man of the match performance against Barcelona, where he was nearly the only Arsenal player able to retain possession against Guardiola’s high energy high pressing all conquering Barcelona side, the Catalan manager purred “Special. [Wilshere] left a massive impression. A high, high level.”
And again in the second leg Wilshere played a massive role. Arsenal were down to 10 men after the referee showed van Persie a red card for the crime of shooting the ball at Barcelona. And as Arsenal hung on for dear life, it was Wilshere who won the ball and delivered what should have been the game-winning pass onto the feet of Nicklas Bendtner. But by the grace of Bendtner, he missed. It wasn’t just one pass. Jack bossed the best midfield in Europe, trained by the obsessive control freak, Pep Guardiola. It was such a high level performance that it left Barcelona midfielder Xavi to call him the future of English football – six years later.
But that performance was 2010/2011.
It was the summer after the best season of his life and just seven minutes into a pre-season match against the New York Red Bulls, Wilshere limped off the pitch, replaced by Benik Afobe. From that point on, 2011/12 was a write-off – Wenger originally proclaimed it just swelling, even saying “It is not very serious but it is serious because they say he might be out for all of next week – it’s an ankle inflammation but he has not torn anything. He is a quick healer usually and a tough boy, so I hope he will be quicker than the medical prediction.” He wasn’t. He didn’t play a single match for Arsenal in 2011/12.
In 2012/13 he played just 2,533 minutes for Arsenal, the equivalent of 28 full games, due to stop-start injuries.
In 2013/14 he suffered two more injuries, which limited his playing time to just 2,500 minutes. This was the season he scored the best goal of his career, the famous “goal against Norwich.”
The next season, he returned strong but he nearly missed the entire season after a tackle by Paddy McNair in November which left him facing another surgery. Wenger described the boy as “very distraught” after learning that he needed to undergo the knife again – he played just 1,479 minutes in 2014/15.
If that was distressing, 2015/16 must have been his second nadir: he missed 47 games after suffering a hairline fracture in training.
On his triumphant return to football, Jack took the unusual decision to go out on loan. Perhaps eager to prove himself for England, perhaps anxious over playing opportunities at Arsenal. Either way, Bournemouth boss Eddie Howe only played him 1913 minutes in 27 appearances and right before he was injured, Howe had relegated the former England international to a bench role before dropping him completely for a player who put in more work off the ball. Despite Jack Wilshere’s obvious talents Howe was forced to make the change to save Bournemouth’s season.
It wasn’t like Jack didn’t show flashes of class. Every match I watched he looked like a senior player winding down his career: solidly the best player on the field, oozing class (as Owen Coyle once said), but just not quite fitting in with Howe’s up-tempo approach.
Wilshere returned this season and has had a number of good matches. He’s been especially good in the Europa League, perhaps part of his appeal is that he seems like one of the most continental of Arsenal’s English footballers.
I empathize with Wilshere. He’s a 26 year old man who has missed two full years of training, at crucial moments, for his career. He’s also a 26 year old man with the body of a 32 year old man: he’s been sliced open by opponents, teammates, and surgeons so many times that I shudder to think what he knees and ankles must look like.
Jack should be coming into his prime. Teams should be clamoring for his signature. He should be worth tens of millions to opponents. He should. But Jack’s career has been like a teenager trying to learn to drive stick: it lurches about half a dozen times, leaps forward, and dies. He starts the car up again, it pitches again twice, jerks forward and dies with a wheeze. And now here he is starting the car up again while his dad sitting next to him is telling him to feather the clutch.
Arsenal offered him a reduced contract and Jack revealed that Wenger told him last summer that he could leave if he could find a club. He didn’t. He’s also not signing the reduced contract any time soon.
Beyond the problem with Wilshere’s injury record, and stop-start development at Arsenal is that he’s not first choice for any role. In CM, he is like Santi in that he’s a dribbler. But his dribbles are markedly different than Cazorla’s. He’s more of an open field dribbler, he likes to push the ball three yards and then catch up to it. I think this is called a “cow dribble” in some parts of the world. It’s very effective if you still have that explosive first step and the opposition is well spaced.
Cazorla on the other hand is much more of a close control player. Cazorla is also the most two-footed player I have seen in my entire time watching football, and I don’t think that’s hyperbole. This allows him to create moves and get out of trouble in ways that Wilshere can’t. This video below shows one particularly devastating attack by Cazorla against Man City. He beats three guys out of defense before they resort to just fouling him to stop the counter.
Neither player is a hard nosed defender and both players like to create from a combination of long and short passes. Both players love that splitting throughball pass that is so good at creating big chances.
Those are the obvious things. The subtle way in which Wilshere has improved this season is in his ability to move the opposition. This was Pep Guardiola’s secret superpower. Pep was never a powerful player, not the best dribbler, but he could move his opponents around the pitch like a Chess master. Wilshere has seemed to develop this ability and despite still being entirely left-legged has had some masterful matches manipulating the opposition midfield.
Here against Newcastle, Jack draws in three defenders leaving a huge hole on his left:
His teammates (Xhaka, Iwobi, and Alexis) fail to move into that space, so Jack dribbles past these three cones and takes the space for himself.
Jack has now single-handedly advanced the ball, beaten Perez (not pictured) and now has once again manipulated three Newcastle players into closing him down. Lacazette (top) make a run behind the defender, leaving Jack the only option, dump the ball to Alexis.
As good as he is at manipulating opposition players with his dribbles, he still sometimes over-elaborates. This time we pick up him dribbling against Cry Pal.
Here, Jack collects the ball and you can already see Ozil making the run to where he needs to be (where the referee is standing). Jack fails to control first touch and can’t use his right foot to meet Ozil with an easy pass. So he instead dribbles into Xhaka.
He’s actually created MORE space for Ozil and if he passed the ball right now, Mesut has a great counter. Please note Xhaka – and this is a side note but – in both stills (this example and the one against Newcastle) is basically doing nothing. He doesn’t move to create space and he is always seemingly in the way, bringing his defender with him to help defend Wilshere. But Jack doesn’t make the pass and instead dribbles right at Xhaka.
It looks like Ozil is standing with his hands on his hips, he’s not. Xhaka has finally moved and STILL.. Jack should be making this pass. He doesn’t.
Instead he’s dribbled into a trap. Xhaka is still not helping the situation and to be fair, it’s impossible to help if someone dribbles right at you. Jack does squeeze the ball between these two defenders and gets it to the forward who dumps it immediately to Ozil. But here is Jack trying to do too much, manipulating players, but doing it in exactly the wrong way; over-elaborating, dribbling at his teammates, and despite the sort of heart-stopping action, slowing the game down. In desperation Jack doesn’t even pick out a teammate, he just dumps it into space.
Now, obviously, everyone has bad plays and everyone makes mistakes but these aren’t just one-off examples of his brilliance and flaws. They are examples of plays we see all the time with Wilshere. Those stills are from a video called “Magician Reborn” and while it’s meant to be a positive look at Wilshere, I think it shows both his positives and his flaws.
As for other roles Wilshere can play, he’s been touted as a DM by some because he nominally played there for the English national team. He’s also said this season that he’s no longer going in for rash challenges. He was known for that as a youth, that “red mist” that the English so dearly love/hate. But watch that video linked above, he does it three times! Those are all highlights from this season. If I was a player with such a horrible injury record, I would never lunge in for a tackle, least of all when the player was so close to the ball.
And further up the pitch, Jack has had his position usurped by players who were simply better than him. He’s never going to take over the #10 role while Ozil is still capable.
The contract offer from Arsenal was a realistic one. It offers him £4m a year to play for one of the biggest clubs in the world. In fact, I would say that Arsenal’s offer was a pretty big gamble. Wilshere is far from the complete product and at 26 he really should be. Moreover, he’s a massive injury liability (he’s been injured again at practice for England this week). And given his injury history, it’s unlikely that he’ll be able to play well into his 30s. So, this contract is a chance to prove his fitness and to prove that he can still grow into the player that so many predicted.
He should take it.