Arsenal: What Jack Wilshere's Return Means for Arsenal
Jack Wilshere's return to the Arsenal first team is not an indicator that the Gunners are going to win titles this season. Nor should fans place an undue burden on the precocious Englishman to be Arsenal's savior when the going gets tough, for instance, this coming weekend against Manchester United.
Rather, metered expectations should weigh on his shoulders, and nothing more. The 20-year-old only has 65 appearances to his name for the North London side, and despite his excellent return to the fold against Queens Park Rangers last Saturday, the focus should be on ensuring his health and a return to match fitness.
With that said, it's certainly worth exploring the young man's potential, both on an individual level and in terms of his place within Arsenal's squad in the future.
Jack is an oddity of a player. Standing 5'8", likely a generous measurement, he doesn't have the stature of a traditional central midfielder in the mold of a Michael Carrick, Steven Gerrard or Frank Lampard. But given the state of modern football, this is a benefit more than it is a hindrance.
Metronomic magicians are the order of the day—players who can move the ball around quickly and accurately, without giving up possession, and who are able to make the occasional Hollywood ball. Think Barcelona's Xavi Hernandez, Juventus' Andrea Pirlo or Arsenal's own Mikel Arteta. These individuals are not particularly strong defensively, but they are exceptional distributors and, positionally speaking, are rarely out of place.
While some writers have called for Arsenal to buy an out-and-out defensive midfielder to replace Alex Song, such as Rennes' Yann M'Vila, it does not appear as if one is needed. Mikel Arteta has been a revelation as a fulcrum for the Gunners this season, pivoting from a defensive shield to intermediary between defense and more advanced midfielders, and even as a long-range distributor. Combined with the outrageous class of Santi Cazorla ahead of the former Everton man, the question mark for Arsenal this season has been who occupies the box-to-box role. Abou Diaby has done well there when his fitness has permitted it.
Wilshere is the current answer, and it is the perfect position for him. With the freedom to play ahead of Arteta and to support the roving movement of Cazorla, Wilshere has both the technique and footballing vision to influence the middle of the park, something that fill-in Aaron Ramsey has not yet done.
And it's this flexibility that is such a boon for Arsene Wenger. Wilshere has the tactical and defensive nous, to say nothing of his tenacity, to operate in Arteta's role when the Spaniard retires. He also has the movement, vision and technical prowess to, potentially, be a highly proficient attacking midfielder. As it stands, though, both needs are currently and ably filled. Slotting Wilshere in between them gives the Gunners one of the top three midfields in the league behind that of Manchester City and league-leader Chelsea.
As the season progresses, Wilshere will make this role his and be able to amply exercise his passing and linkup play. He'll also develop his positional and creative abilities. The boy's upside is absurd given what he has demonstrated before his 21st birthday, which arrives on New Year's Day.
Greater than his individual contribution is what Wilshere's introduction means for the team around him. The midfield as a whole has scary depth when Wilshere plays, given the fact that French international Diaby, Czech international Tomas Rosicky and Welsh international Ramsey would not see the field. This is to say nothing of the quickly developing Francis Coquelin and Emmanuel Frimpong.
With two solid tacklers ahead of central defensive trio Thomas Vermaelen, Per Mertesacker and now third choice Laurent Koscielny, Arsenal look to have a strong spine, anchored by the excellent play of caretaker Vito Mannone and promising Pole Wojciech Szczesny. Having three talented fullbacks, in the form of Bacary Sagna, Carl Jenkinson and Kieran Gibbs means that the Gunners actually look good in the back. Not passable or okay, but good. They have conceded six goals in nine games and currently have the stoutest defense in the Premier League. I don't think I'm alone when I say that no one expected that from the current defensive personnel.
This kind of foundation is crucial to any top-tier side, and can be a source of confidence for Arsenal's fans around the world. It also serves to highlight the side's more frustrating characteristic: its upper-level management.
For all the plaudits and accomplishments that have been earned by, and due to, the savvy financial decisions that Arsenal's board of directors has made to ensure long-term financial stability and short-term competitiveness, Arsenal would probably be closer to the top of the division if Robin van Persie were still leading the line.
Despite looking generally competent in front of goal this season, there is a gaping whole in the shape of a consistent, world-class goal threat. This continues the post-Emirates Arsenal story: plug one hole and another reveals itself. Sell the most talented and valuable players in the starting XI, and do reasonably well in their absence. Had even two or three of them stayed, the team's fortunes could have been appreciably greater.
Which is why the new No. 10—both Arsenal's and England's long-term hope for the future—is so important to the team. Like Fabregas before him, he's a player Wenger can build a team around. That Wilshere could prove to be even better than Fabregas is both a cause for hope and concern. What happens if he leaves?
Wilshere's return should not be regarded as a watershed moment. If it sparks a run of good results in the league, so be it. If it inspires a spree of mediocre results, he is likely not the sole blame. But in the long run, Jack Wilshere will be the keystone of Arsenal's first team. Wilshere's talent and drive are undeniable, and he deserves to be in a winning team. If by the age of 24 Jack and Arsenal have yet to win a trophy, I won't blame the young Englishman if he moves to greener pastures.
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