There will always be that performance at the Camp Nou.
The 2010-2011 Champions League First Knockout stage. The second leg between Arsenal and Barcelona in Catalonia. Underneath the starry skies and upon the canvas of the European stage. Inside the amphitheater that forms Barcelona’s majestic football stadium. Amidst the brilliance of Lionel Messi, within the kaleidoscopic passing of Barcelona and beyond the controversy of a Robin Van Persie red card — there was Jack Wilshere.
The then 19-year old showed why many had raved about his talents; why his left foot was becoming England’s next whiz kid. Future potential had been displayed before; it was on display for that 90 minutes. Huffing and puffing, passing and threatening with a composure well beyond his years. As per WhoScored, he had the most touches of any Arsenal player on that night, and was also the midfielder with most successful tackles as well as completed dribbles.
He may not have been ultimately exceptional on that night, but given his age, given the stage, the performance spoke of a bright future.
Of late however, that optimistic perception has seemingly been altered into a confusing non-conclusion.
Three years on, there is now near mutual frustration and inconsistent appreciation of Wilshere. There are those who still think he is worth every ounce of praise he receives. Others think he has not kicked on as much as was expected since that night in Barcelona. Some are of the opinion that he is no longer moving forwards, but is regressing. While to some, he is just developing as normally as he should, a consequence of the natural stages of a football player’s path (an argument for which Jonathan Wilson has provided in this piece).
Whatever the case may be however, it is always important to judge any footballer’s ability in light of his own peculiar context.
For Wilshere, context should never overlook the probability of the psychological effect that his first major injury in pre-season of the 2011-2012 season had on him.
It should be remembered that the injury disrupted a glorious part of his career, coming a season after he had picked up Arsenal’s Player of the Season Award, a PFA Young Player of the Year Award as well as a spot on the nominated PFA Team of the Year. That the injury led to him missing a whole season is not a light matter. Time away affects mental state and the momentum of confidence. What used to be done easily is either forgotten or doubted.
Of course, the best example to counter that argument lies in Wilshere’s fellow Arsenal teammate, Aaron Ramsey, who has now recovered from a leg break that also ruled him out for a long time to become a key player for club and country. But then again, consider the context. Peer into the past and remember when Ramsey’s name was on the lips of those who thought he was not good enough.
Another advantage Ramsey had over Wilshere was that unlike the Englishman, the Welshman has had a relatively longer period of non-interruption since his major injury. Wilshere on the other hand seems to pick up injuries on a regular basis.
It could be that he is a bit fragile, but there is no denying that his playing style does contribute. A direct player with a heart for a fight, Wilshere will on occasion find himself subsumed by passion and will run into a crowd with the ball. A dangerous endeavour for one so fragile in a League where tough tackling is on show week in week out and is on many occasions applauded.
Still however, for any reasons that may be given for Wilshere’s perceived stagnation, it should not be forgotten that there is rarely the smell of rain without some drizzling drops. Wilshere’s critics do raise some pertinent questions.
Despite the directness he brings to an Arsenal team that may at times seem a little blunt in pushing forwards, what else does he provide? Is he a goal threat when he has only ever scored six goals in his Premier League career? Does he provide as many assists? And do his direct runs provide the required penetration, especially in the biggest of matches?
Does Wilshere have the guile to consistently play as a central creator in the number 10 role? Is he robust enough to play alongside a holding midfielder? Does he have the tactical intelligence and awareness to play as a holder himself? And when having him as a holder, does not that waste his energy to burst forwards?
In short, what is Wilshere’s best position or role, and in what formation can that position/role be applied to maximum effect?
That is where Wilshere must be careful he does not turn into Wayne Rooney. The Manchester United and England captain is a microcosm of what happens when a player so hyped, so placed upon much responsibilities ultimately becomes a man for whom the idea of influence on a game supercedes the actual reality.
Rooney is for all intents and purposes, a very good striker. But he fails in ultimately becoming a very great one. As good a number 10 as he is, he is probably not the one you would most prefer. In fact, Miguel Delaney writing for ESPNFC summarises it brilliantly well with this line,
“The feeling persists that he is good to very good at virtually every facet of the game, but not exceptional in any of them.”
If anything however, it should be remembered that unlike Rooney, Wilshere is still only 22. Time is on his side and he may end up answering any and all questions raised against him.
In this regard, it is therefore Theo Walcott — another prodigy who was around for so long while still so young that people forgot his youth — whom Wilshere should probably look to. Where he used to run towards unproductive channels of space and past by-lines, Walcott — now 25 — is a very good wing forward, capable of using his pace to exploit the space in behind a defence . At the same time, despite his earlier confusion at wanting to be a center forward, he has focused himself without losing that finishing touch and therefore provides goals from out wide.
Indeed, this should be Wilshere’s next step of development. Find out what he is good at and focus it to produce an overly reliable, dependable player able to perform a job required of him.
Without that, then he risks becoming another Wayne Rooney. An incredibly talented footballer whom – on approaching his 29th birthday — will be dividing opinion and fuelling endless debates rather than settling them.