Arsenal and the problem with Jack Wilshere 7

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When England are eliminated from international tournaments, typically a flurry of articles are published that predict what the national side’s line-up will look like by the time the next competition rolls round.  It’s a cathartic process; it draws a line under whatever humiliation has just taken place and it creates a sense of optimism for the future - we take a group of players, artificially advance them by a couple of years, and conclude that they collectively will be the world-beating side that we’re so sure we deserve.

Past glories are so far behind us that we don’t bother looking back anymore, and instead we’ve become a footballing nation who are stuck in the habit of peering into the future and convincing ourselves that the next generation will save us.

“Imagine player X in four years - we can build the team around him”.

It never works out; partly because we overestimate talent - definitely - but also because the development of a career is never quite as simple as we assume it’s going to be.  We see talent, we see flashes of brilliance, and before long we can’t see anything but uninterrupted progress and a comic book story arc.

Right now, no player better exemplifies just how foolish assumption can be than Jack Wilshere does.

To regular readers and Twitter followers, I’m known as someone who is very harsh on Wilshere.  Maybe it’s partly a reaction to the hyperbole that exists around him, but in my mind he occupies a place in this country’s footballing hierarchy that he hasn’t yet earned.  He is more theory than reality, more mirage than oasis.

What Jack Wilshere eventually achieves for England is a secondary concern, because the priority in his career must be to solidify his place at Arsenal.  Six years after his first Premier League appearance, it’s strange to be debating his first-team viability, but that is where we are: Wilshere enters the 2014/15 season without a guaranteed place in Arsene Wenger’s first-team and facing a fight to win one.

His problem is not ability and it never has been.  The first and most obvious asterisk against all the criticism he receives is his injury-record and it would be contrary not to mention that.  Even though he first stepped onto a Premier League pitch back in September 2008, Wilshere has to-date only managed 100 appearances in the competition.  Game-time impacts a player’s rate of development and so clearly that is a significant consideration in any judgement on his progress.

A consideration, but not a free-pass.

All too often critiques of Wilshere are stonewalled with a flat palm and the recitation of his age and his injury-record, but he’s not just an innocent bystander in this process.  One hundred Premier League games - or one hundred and forty-six across all competitions - is not a sufficient incubation period, but it should have allowed Wilshere to mature more than he probably has.  While his technical mechanics - his touch, his ability to beat players, his passing range - are all very impressive, he still seems to lack an understanding of how to apply them properly.

That’s the key problem.

Right now, he’s the kind of player who shows up nicely in highlight packages and will produce an eye-catching pass or two, but over the course of a ninety-minute game he is frequently and worrying anonymous.  When Arsenal play at home against a side from the bottom half of the league and when they’re enjoying long spells of possession and space, Wilshere can look very dynamic and every bit the talent he was projected to be.  Put him in a less favourable situation, however, and he will shrink away.  That’s not because of a lack of effort or spirit, but because he’s so one-dimensional.

What is he good at?  He receives the ball beautifully, he can turn and create space as well as any English player in the league, and he has a very under-appreciated creative mind.  He also dribbles very effectively, beats a lot of opponents, and he draws a lot of fouls.  But - and this is crucial - he can’t always play in the same way.  Playing aggressively at home to Norwich, for example, carries less of a potential downside than the same approach against Manchester City at The Etihad.  Giving the ball away to a side with ten men behind the ball isn’t really a problem, but taking on one-too-many defenders in a game against a side who thrive in transition really is.

Does he always give the ball away against the marquee teams?  Does he consistently play in the wrong way against those sides?  No, that’s not fair, but his naiveties are frequently exposed in those kind of games.  Take last season as the example and re-watch his games against the division’s elite  - what you will see is him trying to force his will on game and ultimately failing every time.  There are different ways to be effective and the very best players know how to tailor their game to the specific occasion.

Wilshere is a wonderfully expressive player, but he has to sometimes temper his instinctive tendencies with a greater recognition of the context he’s playing in.  Trying to force situations in tight games may feel heroic, but at that level of the game it’s actually irresponsible.  Sometimes it’s right to slow the pace of a game down.  Sometimes it’s the smart move not to advance the ball.  Sometimes it’s OK to revert to a high-percentage style of play.

A player can have all the talent in the world, but until his footballing IQ catches up with his ability he’ll never reach his potential.

Arsene Wenger isn’t blameless in this situation, because he has never really given the player a consistent role in the team.  Part of growing up as a footballer is getting to know a position and understanding its responsibilities, and when fit Wilshere has been shunted all over the pitch - in 2013/14 alone, he was used in both wide midfield positions, centrally, and as one of his side’s deep-midfielders. From an educational standpoint that has merit, maybe, but for a player who desperately needs to become more specialised it’s counter-productive.  Wilshere may be capable of playing a wide variety of roles, but you have to believe that his contribution would rise if he was allowed to master just one.  He could, in theory, become an outstanding transitional player and really excel in operating between the attacking and defensive halves of the side, but that’s a complex role which requires adjustment and involves a steep learning curve.

It’s a catch-22; Wilshere hasn’t been available enough to acquire this game intelligence, yet he’s a risky selection for Wenger until he does.  If he can stay healthy, if his manager can give him a consistent role, and if he can play with more diversity and maturity, then that will likely bridge the gap between the player he is now and the player he is supposed to be.

It’s easier said than done, though, and Wilshere is at a far tougher stage in his career than most people appreciate.

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