25 June 2014

Is there still room in the squad for Jack Wilshere?

It's hard to take much away from Tuesday's dour draw with Costa Rica, what with England already eliminated and the Ticos basking in the glory of advancing on the strength of a draw (and winning the group thanks in part to the antics of one Luis Suarez, who sank his teeth into Chiellini and may have sunk Italy's hopes in the process). In short, neither side, not the Three Lions nor the Ticos, had much on the line except perhaps pride in the former and bragging rights in the latter. In the end, then, Wilshere's only start in the World Cup was abortive from the start. More worringly, it portends poorly for his future with both club and country.

#7 would be Wilshere, for enquiring minds...
Playing alongside Frank Lampard in a familiar-to-Arsenal 4-2-3-1, Wilshere played in a more-advanced role, letting Lampard occupy the deeper position. In Gunner terms, then, Wilshere played a role most-similar to the one Aaron Ramsey played so well while punting on the more-defensive elements of the position to the likes of Flamini or Arteta. Unfortunately for Wilshere, Ramsey has played that role with such aplomb that there's little need for another starter who can play the pivot. What we need is a more conservative, defensive-minded midfielder who can shield the back four and break up opposition attacks. Suffice so say, that ain't Jack.

He's far more effective and interested in bombing forward to create chances for others—but this is a role that Ramsey has again excelled at to such an extent that Wilshere risks being reduced to second fiddle. His stats against Costa Rica—an arguably inferior if spirited side with little to play for—hardly convince that he can deliver or dominate from his preferred role: two key passes, no shots taken, one successful dribble and one time dispossessed. These are hardly the stats one might expect from a player who sees himself as the spark-plug that fires the engine. Against such opposition, and considering Wilshere's near-legend status, we might have the right to expect a more dominating performance, if only in the chances-created department, where he only managed to deliver the two key passes. Even if England were only playing for pride, that doesn't quite cut the mustard.

Wilshere himself seems to sense the urgency, even if that sensation may not have registered during the match:
It’s easy for me to stand here and say: ‘We’re young, we can go forward', but if you look at Germany, a team like that, they’ve got young players who are delivering now....Time is running out for us to say we’re young any more. I’m 22. Ross [Barkley], Luke [Shaw] and Raheem [Sterling] are young players. They showed in the tournament what they can do. But in the next tournament, we really have to deliver. I think it is [a big year for me]. I’m not young any more. I’m going to be 23 in January and that’s a good age for a footballer. It’s a big season for me, it’s a big season for Arsenal. But at the moment, I’m devastated. I’ve got to try and get over this and then try to move on next season.
The problem for Jack is, where can he move on to? From which position can he deliver on the promise that we saw in a few years ago, such as in his scintillating performance against Barcelona in 2011? The role he played then may differ from the role we need him to play going forward, unless he and Ramsey can figure out how to take turns plunging into the heart of the opponent's defense to create chances for others or for themselves. Simply put, someone has to stay home to help the back four, even moreso next season, what with Sagna gone. Whether it's Jenkinson or Aurier or someone else at right-back, we will need someone who can shield that back-four. Let's face it: Arteta and Flamini ain't getting any younger.

Speaking of those two, they may each be put to pasture sooner rather than later, but it's not too late for them to pass on the wisdom that comes from age, to Wilshere and to Ramsey. If the two of them can learn the better part of valor from Arteta (okay, and from Flamini), we might just see the emergence of one of the most dynamic defensive midfield/midfield pivots in some time. Picture it: Ramsey (or Wilshere) pressing forward, pinging passes back and forth with Walcott or Giroud or Podolski or Özil, while Wilshere (or Ramsey) hangs back to soak up opposition counters, only to pour forward himself while the other drops down to cover.

Pause a moment to think of how breath-taking that can be. Wilshere or Ramsey go in for a tackle at the top of our box, touch the ball to a teammate while getting back up, and then launching the counter. Whichever one is the lynchpin, it can become an intimidating blur, as one or the other drives deep into the defense while the other drops down to see what happens; as each alternates with the other, flummoxing defenders along the way, chances multiply for the Girouds and Walcotts of the world.

If only.

Whether by temperament, training, or ability, we can't yet rely on a Ramsey/Wilshere pairing. It's too tempting to imagine them dribbling and passing their way around and amid opposition defenses, and too easy to neglect the grittier, hum-drum responsibilities of staying home. If they could figure it out, it could bring Wengerball back to the fore—moving us past possession for possession's sake towards possession with purpose. I can see it now: a delicate interplay between Wilshere and Ramsey at midfield as the more-forward lays the ball off to the more-defensive before relaunching the next attack.

For now, the burden of proof seems to lie at Wilshere's feet. Injuries have sidelined him, and Ramsey's talismanic form has allowed him to claim the attacking role while Arteta or Flamini have sat back to soak up pressure. If Wilshere can find his form and his role in the Arsenal squad, we might just witness some beautiful football in the very near future.  I'd love that.

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