February 2, 2011 Barcelona, Spain. If you are an Arsenal supporter older than 7, you remember this day. The club was about to embark on an unenviable run of exits in the Champions League, but we were not to know this at the time. That night, at the conclusion of that match at the Camp Nou, there was one player grabbing more headlines than the rest. A diminutive but technically sublime midfielder had put on a master class performance. The most shocking bit of all was that this particular player had not honed these skills in the fabled La Masia, the Football Academy of F.C. Barcelona. It was not Xavi Hernandez or Andres Iniesta, two players that had finished second and third to their teammate (more on him in a moment) in World Player of the Year voting. It wasn’t their enforcer, prototypical single pivot Sergio Busquets either. Nor was it their former teammate at the youth level and current Arsenal captain Cesc Fabregas. And no, it wasn’t the precocious mullet known as Lionel Messi either. It was nineteen-year-old Jack Wilshere.
At the time, it seemed like all had witnessed a future English legend have his coming out party. Against one of history’s best teams, with several of history’s best footballers, and possibly, it’s best manager (according to some) he was the star. Barcelona pressed Arsenal all night long, attempting to squeeze the midfield so tight that breathing would be a challenge. With deft flicks, touches and turns, Jack Wilshere sliced through them for 90 minutes, playing inch perfect passes long and short and completing take ons like few midfielders that don’t live on the flanks could match. This was one of those days, like winning the FA Cup in 2014 and the signing of Mesut Ozil in 2013, that made Gooners feel that financial austerity and the title drought were things of the past. Arsenal was a proper big club again.
Even a casual view through some of Arsenal’s best goals of the last 6 seasons provides more than a fair share of Wilshere highlights. This is made even more impressive by the amount of games missed through injury during that timeframe, missing a whole season and only playing three league games in another.
Santi Cazorla has also clearly been missed this season. Like last year, it seemed as if Arsenal’s engine stopped ticking along when he made his long term exit from the lineup due to injury. His quick decision making and even quicker short area ball control are vital to linking Arsenal’s build up into attack. Having the ‘Little Magician’ on the pitch is invaluable to many players, but there are four in particular. His midfield partner for two years, Francis Coquelin, has struggled this year without Cazorla next to him. With Arsenal not possessing the same quick strike ability with Santi sidelined, They have been forced to build up their attacks more methodically through the center, forcing Coquelin on the ball more than he or the Boss would probably like. He does not threaten in the same way as Cazorla does, allowing opposing midfields to mark Ozil tighter, knowing that Coquelin is not likely to try and play it much further. Ozil also benefits from the presence of Cazorla. When both are on the pitch, it allows Arsenal to change the point of attack in midfield and still have someone with the ability to play in a final ball in possession. The need to close Cazorla down earlier in the midfield than his more defensive and less technically gifted counterparts gives more room in the half spaces for Mesut Ozil to receive and turn upfield with the ball. Granit Xhaka was just starting to build a rhythm and rapport with Cazorla when he got hurt. Their combined passing ranges meant that Arsenal could spring attacks from anywhere on the pitch, which was truly a weapon. Theo Walcott also suffers without the miniature Spaniard, whose perfectly timed balls over the top and accuracy really helped involve the rapid winger in quick counter attacks and passing combinations.
So, I suppose it is that time of year again. I will be yet another writer, many far more eloquent than me, to argue that this next season will be The Season of Jack. Arsenal and England’s former golden boy is only 25. He desperately needed regular game time to get back to match fitness. Even though he is not exactly stuffing the stat sheet there on the south coast, his loan has so far been a success for all parties (touch wood). Bournemouth raised their profile with the media and players, garnering attention for the promising young manager, Eddie Howe, in particular. Bournemouth, despite being newcomers to the top flight, seem to have staying power. For Jack, he has been able to stay on the pitch and rebuild his fitness levels. He has regained a good chunk of that quickness that made him so brilliant on the ball in tight spaces before repeated leg injuries stunted his progression. His passing has been crisp. His defending has been adequate and he has committed himself to being a positive influence and teammate in that change room. Arsenal were able to allow one of their own go and play more games than he could have been guaranteed if he had stayed. Of course, nobody could have known at the time that Arsenal’s overflowing central midfield would need to use a winger to make numbers by this point in the season. Wilshere could have been making a difference in Arsenal’s title hopes, but just as easily languishing on the bench, his talent, commitment and future being called into constant question in the media.
Despite being afforded the opportunity to rebuild his confidence away from the spotlight, I do not believe a season at a small club soured Wilshere’s feelings on Arsenal. He has always been an Arsenal man through and through: a lifelong supporter of the club and academy graduate. Around the time of his deadline day swap last summer, many were saying that perhaps the best thing for both Arsenal and the player may just be to part ways. Arsenal have too many midfielders, they said. Well they aren’t saying that now.
When he hangs the boots up for good, we may never look upon his career as having been the success we expected it to be. But there is a good footballer and a world class football brain still in there, and for the good of England and Arsenal we can only hope he gets his opportunity to fulfill his destiny. After all, even in fiction, it can still take the ‘Chosen One’ 6 films to fulfill theirs!
Ideally, one would like to see both Cazorla and Wilshere in the squad next year. While this may mean not having a guaranteed spot in the starting XI for Wilshere, Cazorla surely won’t be there forever. Wilshere can act as a super sub on those days where Cazorla starts, maybe coming in for Ozil in the later stages of the game where more defensive effort is required in the midfield without sacrificing much in creativity going forward. He is not two footed like Cazorla, but his strength on the ball, passing ability, vision, creativity, and knack for the splitting final ball means that he is the best man to replace Santi Cazorla in Arsenal’s midfield.
And he won’t even cost Wenger £1. He’ll be chuffed to bits.