By Joss Bennett
Jack Wilshere has endured some of the most testing five years of any Arsenal – or even England – player in recent memory. While clearly blessed with immense talent, the 21-year-old has been labelled with every footballing cliché under the sun since he first burst onto the scene as a 16-year-old from the club’s Hale End Academy.
When Wilshere broke into Arséne Wenger’s first team in 2010, at the age of just 18, he was already a victim of the English hype machine that has damaged the careers of so many of the country’s hot prospects. However Wilshere, having spent the second half of the previous season on loan at Owen Coyle’s Bolton Wanderers side, slotted seamlessly into a star-studded midfield consisting of Cesc Fabregas, Alex Song, Samir Nasri and Andrei Arshavin.
Wilshere, who kicked off his footballing career at Luton Town, went on to make 49 appearances in all competitions for the Gunners that season, and a further four (including his debut) for the senior England side. The season also included the then teenager’s first Arsenal goals in the Premier League and Champions League, and a man of the match performance in his side’s famous win over Barcelona as the hype machine continued to churn.
Wilshere has been described as having “Spanish technique, but an English heart” by a manager who should know plenty about both in Arséne Wenger. Unfortunately, since his breakthrough season, the midfielder has suffered setback after setback and fans and manager alike have been unable to see either of these attributes on display.
Much less Roy Hodgson, who now appears to have a plethora of creative talent at his disposal for the first time in too long.
The next cliché to be directed at the Arsenal man was that he was ‘injury prone’, as he failed to make a single appearance in the 2011/12 season and missed out on his country’s Euro 2012 campaign. Wilshere then struggled to consistently find his best form for club or country in 2012/13 and has even found critics hard to please this season, with talk after his two goal haul against Marseille on Tuesday night still focussed on when or if – he will get back to 100% fitness.
For most Arsenal fans, however, the main story from Arsenal’s comfortable victory over the lacklustre French side was the immensely encouraging display by Jack Wilshere. Despite an opposition who clearly flew to London simply to make up the numbers, things did not go all Arsenal’s way, as Aaron Ramsey saw his would-be tap-in saved by Steve Mandanda and Mesut Ozil’s missed penalty compounded a feeling that the German playmaker was not at the races.
Wilshere, however, took matters into his own hands as he curled and lifted the ball beyond the reach of Mandanda after just 30 seconds to become the quickest English goalscorer in Champions League history. Having initially impressed in a deeper central midfield berth in his first season, Wilshere has this season been pushed forward – supposedly out of position on the right hand side of the attacking quartet to accommodate Ramsey’s sudden form.
Despite apparently preferring the deeper ‘quarterback’ role, Wilshere’s move has been beneficial to everyone so far, doubling his career goal-tally with four goals in his last eight games for the club, as well as two assists so far this season. While probably meant as a temporary measure until Walcott returns to full fitness, when Wenger can rotate his squad a little more, the 21-year-old’s performances will certainly be giving the manager food for thought.
From a creative standpoint, this switch has obviously allowed Wilshere to be closer to the goal and opposition box – using his usual approach of quick one-twos and driving runs, but in more dangerous positions and being able to finish attacking moves rather than start them. Wilshere completed two successful dribbles and three key passes in the Marseille final third on Tuesday, and should have had an assist when Ramsey failed to beat the goalkeeper from close-range.
From a more advanced position, Wilshere has also been able to aid the side’s pressing game as a player who has always liked to make challenges and hates losing the ball. This was evident against Marseille, as he harried the defenders and made three tackles in the final third, winning the ball back high up the pitch and at the same time starting key attacking moves.
Overall, Wilshere – who can no longer rely on his ‘youngster’ tag as an excuse – has clearly grown in maturity and become a more professional player. Despite the furore about a picture earlier on in the season apparently showing him at a night-club with a cigarette in hand, Wilshere has generally quietened down and his performance against Marseille was the best example of that yet.
With Ozil and Ramsey failing to provide the goods on the night for once, Wilshere stepped up to the plate and was the Gunners’ primary creative force for much of the first half, as he moved in from the wing to dominate the no.10 zone. Rather than drop off, content with his early goal and confident of a positive review, Wilshere worked hard and rightly received man of the match without playing the full 90 minutes.
Perhaps more impressive still is that after the break, when Ozil and Ramsey improved and did begin to influence the game, Wilshere’s performance got better still, summed up by the graphic below, as he doubled the lead to all but qualify Arsenal for the next round of the Champions League.
If, as his mature performance suggested, Wilshere really is back to his best, then Arsenal have one more reason to add to the ever extending list of reasons why they are a side that should be taken seriously in every competition this season. It looks now as if he has learnt how to either ignore critics, or react to them in a sensible and productive manner and if he adds consistency – which regular playing time, and goals should certainly help – he will go some way to repaying the faith showed in him by Le Professeur.