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Monday 18 August 2014

The Wilshere Enigma

With succinctness hardly being my strong suit, when my nephew, Shane, posed the question about whether I think Jack Wilshere will ever truly fulfil all that potential, it was easier to respond with another post (never fear, such early season enthusiasm is bound to soon evaporate and it'll be a struggle posting once a week :-)

Doubtless the fact that Aaron Ramsey's career has come on, in such significant leaps and bounds since his eventual recovery from Shawcross' GBH, has only highlighted the contrasting way in which Jack Wilshere has seemingly been treading water over the same period. We can only speculate as to whether Jack's failure to influence proceedings and singlehandedly grab games by the scruff of the neck, in the way in which we all know him to be capable of, is related to his own long running injury saga, or some other underlying cause.

But I'm invariably reluctant to single Arsenal players out for criticism, as I've been guilty of giving them a hard time in the past, only to be left feeling somewhat shamefaced, after it's been pointed out to me that any such dip in form has been down to some unfortunate personal crisis. Besides which, by and large, professional footballers are fragile human beings, just like the rest of us and I always feel that it's somewhat crass of us to believe that we're capable of deep insights into their state of being, from watching them kick a ball around for 90 minutes, once or twice a week.

Nevertheless, it was interesting on Saturday to compare Jack's performance, with that of our latest new star signing, Alexis Sanchez. I'm not sure how obvious it will have been to those watching the game against Palace on the box, with the camera's tendency to follow the ball, but as was the case when Mezut Özil first arrived on the scene last season, with my pedantic nature I often find myself focusing on individuals. Their fleeting moments of possession are so few and far between that it's invariably far more revealing to study them through my binoculars, when they're not in the heat of the action and it was particularly noticeable on Saturday how often Alexis was left standing out on the flank, waving his arm in vain, hungry to be given the ball.

Aside from the obligatory YouTube videos (where I've seen Sanchez strike the ball with such pace and power that I'm wondering why Cazorla continues to waft corners harmlessly into the opposition keeper's welcoming arms!) and the stats that I've seen, I've very little knowledge of how Alexis fared while playing for Barca. But from the little that I've seen of the Chilean thus far, I've been extremely impressed. Unlike so many of the mercenary international stars who arrive on the back of a mega-money transfer, believing that they've nothing left to prove, Alexis appears to be revelling in all the attention (presumably after having to endure a bit of a back seat ride at Barca, with Messi at the wheel) and brim full of determination to prove himself worthy of all the attention and his £30m price tag.

Alexis might've failed to produce a suitably brilliant performance on Saturday because so much of what he attempted just didn't come off, but I adore the fact that instead of merely laying the ball off and passing on responsibility, as is so often the case when watching the Gunners endless tikki-takka, whether he was trying to pick the lock with a pinpoint pass, or taking the opposition on, the Chilean attempted to impose himself on the game, pretty much every single time he came into possession. His hunger to have an impact upon the proceedings was also evident in the relatively unusual trait nowadays, wherein he demonstrated a reluctance to hit the deck at the slightest hint of any contact, preferring instead to stumble forward, in his desire to bring the move to fruition.

I rarely trust my increasingly decrepit memory, but I had the distinct impression that Saturday's game was just passing Jack Wilshere by and that we had to wait for him to be shocked from his slumber, by going a goal behind. I don't recall Jack running with the ball, attempting to take the opposition on, until immediately after Hangeland headed the Eagles first corner home and stunned us all into silence in the 35th minute.

With the paranoia that has resulted from Wilshere's woeful injury record, we are constantly moaning about our opponents overly-physical attentions, but with them invariably having been instructed to prevent our fluent passing from gathering any pace and with Jack being placed at the midfield fulcrum of the majority of our moves, it's somewhat inevitable that he attracts so many fouls.

Hypocrite that I am, I'll be the first out of my seat, cheering Jack on, when he goes down on the edge of the area, resulting in the award of a genuine opportunity to score from a set-piece (and better still, much like everyone else, I'm guilty of coming in my pants, if he goes down in the box and secures a spot-kick!). Yet this fast becomes habit-forming and we've grown far too accustomed to the sight of Jack sitting on the deck, legs and arms akimbo, innocently pleading in the direction of the ref, with his "bullied schoolboy" expression.

With Wilshere's low centre of gravity, he should prove a more awkward proposition in the challenge and truth be told, many is the time when I would much prefer for him to produce on the pitch, the same red and white heart that he professes to possess so publicly, by refusing to yield to the attentions of his opponent and instead demonstrates the determination and the hunger to stay on his feet and make his mark.

Moreover, while there might be everything to be gained from the award of free-kicks in the final third, there's nothing to be achieved by going down in the centre-circle, other than securing some advantage by an opponent's name ending up in the ref's notebook. As it turned out, we ended up winning the game immediately after Jason Puncheon was sent off on Saturday, but when ref Moss brandished the red card, after Puncheon slid, studs up, into Monreal, I instinctively moaned, thinking it might well be one of our immediate competitors who could end up being the only ones to profit from facing Palace in the player's absence due to suspension.

Slide tackles were my stock in trade, playing as a left-back as a child many moons back and although I do appreciate the efforts being made to try and minimize the risk of serious injury, I have serious reservations about the rule changes that have completely removed this element from a defender's armoury. Without years of ballet training, it's nigh on impossible to effect a slide tackle with toes sufficiently pointed to conceal ones studs and so with the officials now deprived of room for interpretation of this exciting facet of the beautiful game, playing football wouldn't be nearly so pleasurable for me. And I wouldn't dream of comparing my humble talents with the peerlessly accomplished defensive capabilities of the likes of Winterburn and Dixon, but with the recent rule changes prejudicing football's hard men and swinging too far in the favour of the swallow-diving, theatrical artists, I find myself feeling more than a little melancholy about whether we will see their like again in the modern game.

But as ever, I digress! With Marouanne Chamakh putting himself about, grafting harder in 90 mins for Palace than he did in his entire Arsenal career, perhaps Jack had good cause to go down, each time he was fouled on Saturday. Yet I found myself growing increasingly frustrated with Wilshere accumulating an increasingly frequent tally of free-kicks in the centre-circle, when on each occasion this prevented us from gaining any momentum and afforded Palace the time to track back and regroup, parking the bus with all eleven behind the ball, forming up in the organised and effective fashion, doubtless as dictated by their former mentor.

I was somewhat encouraged, in the brief ten-minute period, between being stirred from his apparent stupor by going a goal behind and the halftime break. Jack took possession on a couple of occasions and drove at the Palace defence, in the terrorising manner that has proved so fruitful in the past, by wreaking panic and mayhem amongst the opposition. However, after being relieved of the ball on the edge of the area, it was as if, having tried and failed, Jack all too rapidly came to the conclusion that he couldn't beat the opposition and went back into his shell.

We've all been waiting for the sufficiently long run in the team that will rebuild his belief and confidence, to the point where Jack is back to being able to ghost past the most competent of defenders and he returns to being capable of making a monkey out of all comers. Moreover, instead of both Ramsey and Wilshere struggling to have the same significant impact on those encounters when the two of them are playing together, I was hoping that all the richly deserved plaudits afforded to Aaron Ramsey in recent times, might inspire his pal to soar to similar heights.

Instead of which, I can't help but wonder if, like so many of our modern day young stars who've achieved such boundless wealth and attention at such an early age, Jack has become a bit too spoiled, deprived of the motivation to dig sufficiently deep, both in training and in competition, to produce the sort of energetic performances that rocketed him to global recognition in the first place.

While Wilshere is spending his afternoons haunting the tattoo parlour, along with so many of his peers who are seemingly intent on outdoing "the painted lady", I wonder if he continues to daydream of finally fulfilling every Gooners ambition to see him lift the big-eared trophy, or if he's more worried about whether the red ink has run?

When all our wealth of midfield talent is fit and available, it's debatable whether Jack deserves to command automatic selection. And if he should find himself forced to sit out matches on the bench, will his much vaunted Arsenal love motivate him to fight for a place in the starting XI, or will he throw his toys out of the pram and begin angling for a lucrative move to join Cashley supping cappuccinos in a fashionable bar on the Continent?

I was disappointed to see the Corporal exiled to East London after Debuchy's arrival because Carl Jenkinson more than made up for any of his defensive naivety, with his adoration for the Arsenal. It's so unlikely in this day and age, for a common or garden supporter to give us all hope, by stepping straight off the terraces, into the playing staff. But at least Carl has only gone out on loan and has not been sold.

With Wilshere and Jenkinson both being Gooners, amongst that all too rare breed of players who actually grew up to play for the club they supported in childhood, it would be devastating to see them both fall by the wayside in the future. Here's hoping that the Gunners can build on last season's success and as the new campaign begins to gather momentum, at the same time Jack will start to rediscover his mojo and will reacquaint himself with the love and enthusiasm for the beautiful game that first yanked his chain as a kid, to the complete exclusion of all the disadvantageous distractions that are the inevitable associated trappings of fame and fortune nowadays.

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Unknown said...

A very good, though worrying article. I think you have identified a serious issue not only for Wilshere, but for many young English players. Our game is changing dramatically - and not all for the good.
Dr. John

Bern said...

It seems to me that in most instances nowadays, youngsters tend to lose the necessary drive & determination to succeed, subsequent to rushing down to the showroom to purchase their shiny new supercar, upon receipt of their initial mega-money contract, in the belief that they've "cracked it" and no longer have to graft their socks off to prove their worth.

In Jack's case, perhaps he enjoyed a couple of seasons where he grew far too comfortable, due to the fact that there wasn't sufficient competition for places for his influential role in the Arsenal squad.

Now this is patently no longer the case, I earnestly hope that he can rise to the challenge, rather than sitting back on his laurels and merely accepting the vagaries that fate has in store for him

Shane Brewster said...

I wrote a longer answer on the bus and it got lost in cyberspace, I'm sure you know what that's like!

Interesting to hear a first hand opinion on Alexis, he left me feeling a little indifferent but I've no doubt his work rate and technical ability will see him live up to the price tag.

Hopefully Jack finds his mojo soon, next two games should be good indicators as to how "up for it" he is this season.

It'll be interesting to re-discuss this time next week!