In the past decade, Arsenal have had plenty of players who’ve left the fans tearing their hair out in frustration. The contribution—if one can call if that—of the likes of Mikael Silvestre and Sebastian Squillaci will live long in the memory. In most cases, fans grow impatient with players because of their lack of ability.
However, that is not always the case. In the current Arsenal squad, few players are more infuriating than Jack Wilshere, and that’s nothing to do with his level of quality. Simply put, Wilshere is one of the most frustrating players in the Arsenal squad precisely because he’s one of the most talented.
When Wilshere broke into the side as a teenager, he immediately caught the eye with a degree of technical skill almost unseen in an English player. His ability might have been honed at Arsenal’s Hertfordshire academy, but he seemed as if he’d learnt the game at Barcelona’s fabled Masia. His close control was almost supernatural, and his assurance on the ball uncanny for one so young.
Perhaps the most notable thing about Wilshere was that he never ever seemed to look down at the ball. His first touch was instinctive, his second often inspired. Playing predominantly from the right-hand side, there was no denying Wilshere’s low centre of gravity and direct dribbling style was reminiscent of the great Lionel Messi. It seemed certain that Arsenal had uncovered a player capable of dominating for a generation.
It’s yet to pan out that way. For a multitude of reasons, Wilshere has yet to fulfil his enormous potential. Injuries have of course been a huge factor: With physical problems holding him back, Wilshere has been unable to put together the regular run of games required to iron out the flaws in his game.
He still makes the same mistakes he did as a youngster. While his desire to run at defenders is admirable, it often leads to the concession of possession. What’s more, it also puts him at risk of physical harm, inevitably causing his brittle body to sustain more injuries.
He needs to learn to release the ball earlier. It’s not as if he can’t pass: In an earlier phase of his career, he impressed alongside Alex Song at the base of the Arsenal midfield. There, his primary job was to provide consistent distribution to the likes of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri.
Now, every time he plays, he seems so desperate to make a positive impression that he is too cavalier in his approach. His will to make an impact is immense, but it can be detrimental to his overall performance. The Arsenal fans now want to see more maturity in his game.
In footballing terms, Wilshere is not young anymore. This season, he will turn 24. This should be the prime of his career, and yet we’re still talking about potential.
Arsene Wenger seems very clear that what Wilshere needs is a run of good fortune with his fitness. He told Arsenal.com:
He’s a top-class player with a top-class potential. No matter how good you are in life, you need to have a consistent presence at the top.
Today, what top-level sport doesn’t suffer is to be in and out because it’s too demanding physically [to stay in].
What you wish for Jack is that he can compete now for six months without any problem, or for a year without any problem, and then you will see the player we all know he is.
That’s all well and good, but even staying healthy does not guarantee Wilshere a regular place in the Arsenal XI. While he has been recuperating, the likes of Aaron Ramsey and Francis Coquelin have kicked on considerably, to the extent that they are now comfortably ahead of Wilshere in the pecking order.
Even the news of Santi Cazorla’s contract extension is arguably a blow to Wilshere—had the Spaniard returned to La Liga, the Englishman was arguably the player best placed to replicate his quick-footed playmaking from deep.
Wilshere needs to find a role in the team before he can set about finding his form. At the start of 2014/15, Wenger attempted to crowbar him into the midfield with a new 4-1-4-1 formation. The results were far from impressive, and Wenger’s reversion to 4-2-3-1—along with yet another injury for Wilshere—saw Arsenal’s results improve considerably.
Wilshere showed flashes of his true ability at the back end of last season, thumping home a spectacular volley on the final day of the Premier League season against West Bromwich Albion before following up with a brilliant brace for England. However, those moments feel relatively anomalous. Thus far, he has not been able to produce that kind of excellence over a prolonged period.
It’d be false to say it’s make or break for Wilshere now. Wenger’s faith in him is obvious, and the Gunners boss seems unlikely to jettison a player he has nurtured for so long. His future at Arsenal seems secure.
However, it remains to be seen exactly what that future entails. It may seem certain Wilshere will remain at Arsenal, but we don’t know if it will be as a peripheral squad member or, as was once envisaged, the heartbeat of the side. He has the gifts to be a huge player for the Gunners. Now he just needs the luck, attitude and application to transform talent into a tangible contribution. Over to you, Wilshere.
James McNicholas is Bleacher Report's lead Arsenal correspondent and is following the club from a London base throughout 2015/16. Follow him on Twitter here.