26 May 2014

Jack Wilshere, Pinball Wizard...

Amid all of the other hullabaloo, lost in the litany of other injuries and returns, has been the growing influence of one Jack Wilshere. He may not have delivered the goals that Ramsey has or the breath-taking turns or passes that Özil, but Wilshere's return to fitness gave this squad a jolt when it was needed most, and his appearance in the FA Cup final coincided, perhaps not coincidentally, with our seizing that match by the scruff and dragging it home. Earlier in the season, it looked like we might see Wilshere suffer a fate similar to Diaby or Eduardo, players whose careers have been derailed and curtailed. When Wilshere injured his ankle, it felt like the worst kind of déjà vu. His cameo in the FA Cup final may have only amounted to about 15 minutes of action, but his play there and on the season show a man ready to take it to the next level.

In seasons past, we've rued Jack's willingness to go in for a rash tackle or to take one last extra dribble before making a pass, inviting and suffering the accompanying clatterings that come with them. How many times in the last few seasons has he been scythed down as he tried to make something happen? Each time, we've held our collective breath, it seems, as we worried that he'd suffer real damage, it not to body then to soul, losing the chip on his shoulder in order to stay on the pitch.

Jack Wilshere Arsenal Artist ● Goals & Skills... by kstu1

This season, to some degree, we've begun to see a more mature player, one with a livelier spring in his step to go along with his aggressiveness and tenacity. Gone, for the most part, is the almost-mindless aggression (pardon me if, for a moment, I split hairs. "Aggressiveness" here means courage and determination; "aggression" refers to recklessness and abandon). Part of what endears Jack to me, and maybe to many Gooners, is that aggressiveness. In a squad too often full of dilettantes and ballerinas, Jack is full of piss and vinegar, all too ready to scrap with anyone, regardless of size or stone. In the past, that's brought him to ruin as he's been carded or hacked into oblivion. More recently, however, he's shown the better part of valor, learning how to float a bit like a butterfly without losing any of his sting. In the clip, observe how often he dances past or even above a would-be tackler. Twelve months ago, that might have been the defender's cleat slashing his ankle, sending him tumbling to the turf. Our hopes for this talisman seemed to crumble along with him.

This is not to say that he now occupies some special plane, some ethereal new echelon that allows him to float above the fray; it merely offers an opening. Whether it's discretion or discipline or something else altogether, it looks like Jack is learning how to get around, rather than through, defenders. Sometimes, he's pinballing the ball to a teammate and getting it right back a second later in space, leaving a defender flat-footed; at other times, he's yo-yo-ing the ball before laying it off to create a shot on goal for a teammate. At his best (a phase that he enters and occupies ever-more often), he can take the ball deep in our third and drive it hard and fast into the heart of the opponent's defense.

He's just getting started. He's just now learning to trust that surgically-repaired right ankle, and he's still figuring out how to manage the immense expectations placed on him for club and for country. More and more, though, it seems that he's learning how to live up to those expectations. In time, he may yet exceed them.

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