Arsenal FC: Picking a Starting XI to Get the Best Out of Jack Wilshere
On Monday October 1, Jack Wilshere made his first appearance on a football pitch since suffering a stress fracture of the ankle in a preseason friendly against New York Red Bulls in 2011.
The match in question was against West Bromwich Albion in the National Group 1 of the Premier League's Under-21 League, and although the game ended in defeat for the Gunners, the real victory was that Wilshere lasted for 63 minutes before exhaustion made him leave the field of battle.
The game was Wilshere's first competitive match since June 4, 2011 when he played in one of Fabio Capello's final matches as England manager.
Much has changed for Wilshere in those last 14 months since he last kicked a ball in anger.
Arsenal no longer relies on the services of Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri, Emmanuel Eboue, Gael Clichy, Robin van Persie, Alex Song or even Manuel Almunia.
They have been replaced by the likes of Mikel Arteta, Gervinho, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Per Mertesacker, Olivier Giroud, Lukas Podolski and Santi Cazorla while Kieran Gibbs, Wojciech Szczesny and Carl Jenkinson have all been promoted to the first team.
Fabio Capello has been replaced by Roy Hodgson as England manager, Manchester City has become a force in the Premier League and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has replaced Wilshere as the next big thing to come from the Gunners’ ranks.
In short, the Arsenal team that now surrounds Wilshere is completely different than the one he left in fourth place in May 2011.
Can Arsenal win the EPL with Wilshere?
His return to first-team action won’t be rushed though, and Arsene Wenger has already hinted that it will take Wilshere some three to four months to become acclimatised to the pace of Premier League football again.
However, the real problem for Wilshere will be in trying to adapt to his new teammates and their new style of play.
When the 20-year-old was a part of the Arsenal side that finished fourth in 2011, they were very much an attack-orientated team where Fabregas supported Van Persie at every opportunity, with Andrei Arshavin and Theo Walcott providing most of the width.
The Gunners were a clever team who used possession football to grind opponents down and created chances by stretching defences to breaking point before hammering home their advantage.
This current Arsenal team reflect Wenger's side from 1999 more than any other in that they now possess incredible pace from numerous positions and are lethal when counter-attacking.
Walcott still remains, but he has been joined by Gervinho and Lukas Podolski in the speed stakes, meaning that Arsenal now have real pace right across the front line.
Kieran Gibbs has completely erased any memories of Gael Clichy at left back and Carl Jenkinson has ably deputised for Bacary Sagna while the French star is out injured, with both Jenkinson and Gibbs bombing up and down the line to support their midfield at every opportunity.
Mikel Arteta has come in and taken over the Quarterback role from Wilshere, in the Englishman's absence, and has become one of the first names on Wenger's team sheet. Arteta's countryman Santi Cazorla is pulling all the strings behind Podolski in the role that Fabregas used to play.
Add all these changes together and Arsenal are a very different kettle of fish than in 2011.
When Wilshere returns to full fitness—and he may be 21 when it happens (his birthday is January 1)—there is no doubting that Arsene Wenger will find a place for his most talented graduate.
Wenger knows this and has spoken about the likelihood of the youngster making it back into his team too early.
"Because of his talent you are always pushed in a situation where you would like to rush him back, [but] we have to resist that," he said.
"Jack needs a few games [and a] progressive build-up to get his body used to competition again.
“When you have been out for 14 months, it takes a long time to find your sharpness. You cannot rush it."
From these few lines we can easily tell that Wenger will not rush Wilshere back into action too quickly, but we can already see that he is priming his team for the impending arrival as we speak.
Le Prof has begun making small changes to his set-up this year.
Aaron Ramsey is now being used in a more forward role. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is often seen lining up alongside Santi Cazorla while Theo Walcott is often left out of the starting XI altogether.
So as Wenger begins to pick his side for Wilshere's return we can already see what may be the strongest team to get the best out of the talented midfielder.
As with all teams, it starts at the back.
It may seem a strange place to start, but the goalkeeper is an incredibly important part of a passing team.
Most of the game's attacks and phases are initiated by the 'keeper, and with a side like Arsenal, just like Barcelona with Victor Valdes, you need a netminder who is as good with the ball at his feet as most lower division footballers.
In this regard, Wenger can only really choose Szczesny over Lukasz Fabianski or Vito Mannone as the 22-year-old 'keeper is easily the most comfortable with the ball at his feet. He is also helped by the fact that he is also the best 'keeper of the three.
Full-back is an increasingly important position in the modern game.
Most managers would agree upon the fact that four men are needed to cover the width of the pitch in both defensive and offensive situations in modern football.
The advantage that full-backs give over wing-backs is that they are defence-oriented while wing-backs must give the attack and defence equal time. In the end this workload is far too great, as there is just far too much ground to cover for one man.
Currently, Arsenal is well covered in the position. Every Arsene Wenger team since 1996 has been built upon attacking full-backs, and this current side is no different.
Bacary Sagna is obviously the outstanding defender on Arsenal's right side, as his apprentice, Carl Jenkinson, provides adequate cover while the Frenchman is out injured.
Gibbs controls the left-hand berth, and with both players giving width at every opportunity, the Gunners’ midfield's job is made so much easier.
This support will be ultra important for Wilshere as he is not the most mobile player over short distances.
Wilshere works very hard for his team, but he is not the quickest, so to get the best out of the 20-year-old, Wenger needs his team to provide support, and this is most easily done through intelligent use of pace.
With speed a huge factor through the middle of the team, should Arsenal lose possession, Thomas Vermaelan, the Gunners' best defender and captain, should be partnered by Laurent Koscielny.
Per Mertesacker is extremely slow, even though he probably reads the game far better and is stronger than Koscielny, but the Frenchman's better mobility and passing ability gives him the edge—especially when possession is as important to defending as positional play.
Midfield is where things will begin to get hard for Wenger.
Wilshere will take control of central midfield. So that means Mikel Arteta will have to move from the position he has made his own since he signed from Everton in August 2011.
The advantage that Arteta has is that he is a highly flexible and mobile player who is comfortable across a number of positions in midfield.
He often switched positions at Everton, so his moving to cater for Wilshere will only become an issue if he fails to deal with it mentally, and given the type of professional the Spaniard is that seems highly unlikely.
With Arsene Wenger currently employing a 4-5-1 that turns into a 4-3-3 formation at the flick of a switch, it seems the most likely setup to use if Aaron Ramsey takes up the final midfield berth.
The Welshman's addition to the midfield gives Wenger the option of a flat three with Wilshere in the middle, Arteta to the left and Ramsey to the right.
It also gives many other options where both Wilshere and Arteta sit deep while Ramsey uses his incredible stamina to join the attack. It also allows for either Wilshere or Arteta to roam forward while the other stays behind to guard the defence.
With the centre taken care of we now take a look at the wide positions, and it is here that Arsene Wenger will face the most questions.
Who Wenger picks in the two wide berths will very much depend upon the standard of the oppositions.
When playing against weak, slow opposition, Walcott and Gervinho will become huge factors.
If they play against a team who defend deep then Oxlade-Chamberlain and Cazorla will become the team’s playmakers.
However, when all is said and done, the latter pairing are the better players, so Wenger's decision will usually be made for him (injuries and fitness permitting).
The last position to choose in a team to get the best from Wilshere, is centre-forward.
Lukas Podolski, Olivier Giroud and Gervinho will battle it out for the final position in a 4-5-1, with the German holding the edge due to the type of player he is.
Podolski is highly adaptable and can be asked to drift to either side to expose the opponent's full-backs while the likes of Cazorla, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ramsey and Arteta all support through the middle or the opposite flank.
It must be said though that before Wilshere gets back into the team on a regular basis he must prove his worth to his manager all over again.
Wenger has had to make do without Wilshere for so long that his absence has had to be catered for—just as Fabregas', Nasri's and Van Persie's sales all were.
Le Prof has moved away from the tactics he used in the 2010/11 season in favour of a more counter-attacking approach, and Wilshere will have to come in at full speed if he is to prosper.
To do that he will have to learn to trust his ankle again, and the only way that can happen is if his teammates kick him during training to improve his durability and strength.
He will have to put his body through the pain barrier as his fitness improves, but it has to be done intelligently or he will break down again.
Aaron Ramsey knows all too well what it is like to sit on the sidelines for a long period. The Welsh midfielder suffered a horrific leg fracture against Stoke in February 2010.
Ramsey has experienced so much for someone so young, and at 21 he is exactly the right player in the right place at the right time to advise Jack Wilshere on how to deal with his recovery.
"It makes you stronger [mentally] and it is getting over the mental side of it [the injury]" said Ramsey. "As soon as you get through that, the confidence comes back and it's a thing of the past.
"Little things like that make such a big difference."
With little things usually making the difference between title contenders and also-rans, Arsene Wenger and Arsenal fans will be hoping that their little midfield maestro returns to full fitness sooner rather than later, and when he does the Premier League had better watch out.
You can follow me on Twitter @WillieGannon
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