18 October 2014

Has Arsène scuttled Wilshere's deep-lying development?

After two weeks pondering Jack Wilshere make mincemeat of San Marino and Estonia, it was starting to look, sound, and feel like we might start to see more of Wilshere in a similar role with Arsenal. With the continued absence of Ramsey, the nagging injuries (and inexorable ageing of Arteta), and the relative softness of the next half-dozen fixtures, I was starting to think that Arsène might play Wilshere in a deeper-lying role, maybe even—theatrical gasp—returning to a 4-2-3-1 with Cazorla as the central midfielder. However, speaking at the official Arsenal site, Arsène seems to have scuppered the notion before it can even take hold, at least with the club. However, there's reason to hope that this opens the door for other options to unfold...

First, as Arsène puts it:
Jack is not a ball-winner. I believe he is more a guy you want to get close to the final third, and [if you] keep him deep you take a big part of his efficiency away...He is a guy who likes to penetrate when there are many peoplehe can provoke free-kicks, he can create openings. It would be detrimental to his strengths [to play in a position that] is not his strength.
In other words, never mind how well he did for England; we're playing him where  Arsène sees fit. Disregard that part about it being "detrimental to his strengths" to play a position that "is not his strength". Bite your tongue, Mesut. I think we'd all readily agree that Wilshere likes, and excels at, getting forward with the ball at his feet. He likes to dribble and lay off, disrupting defenses and creating chances for teammates. Along similar lines, it's hard to read into just how well he'd win the ball while sitting in front of our defense; it's not as if San Marino or Estonia mustered up enough pressure to test his tackling. How would he fare against more-aggressive, assertive sides? Hard to say. If we can agree with Arsène's assessment that he can penetrate and create openings, then it stands to reason that we should play him where he gets the most chances to do so, which presumes that he should play a more-advanced role, bringing us back, perhaps, to a 4-1-4-1 in the middle alongside Cazorla.

Does this leave us with Arteta or Flamini in front of the defense? Maybe not. There is one other player who could slot in, especially against the likes of Hull, Sunderland, and Burnley: the Ox. Arsène seems to envision him as a deeper, central midfielder, perhaps as deep as that defensive midfield role. Speaking back in January, here's how he describes Ox's future:
He scored that goal against Brazil [in June 2013] and had a big impact in that game, especially in central midfield. His future will be there in central midfield, in a deeper role, because he has a good long ball and penetration from deep.“He has good quality to distribute and penetrate ­individuallyvery similar to Steven Gerrard. At the moment he is still in development. It is good for his education to play on the left, right or centrally, but after the age of 23 or 24 he will settle into a position. He will be an Aaron Ramsey type.
I don't know about the comparisons to Gerrard or Ramsey and will not offer any comparisons of my own to other players, but it would be invigorating to see an athletic, physical player in the middle of the pitch, someone who can go in for a tackle and recover, who can bomb forward and track back. Ox has speed in abundance, but he's also physical. He may lack the size of, say, Yaya Touré, but then again, no other squad in the Prem features a defensive midfielder as big and as fast as the intermittently-interested Ivorian. If Ox can be groomed for the role, the upcoming weeks might present the best chance for doing so. His speed and dribble suggest that he might be better-suited for a more-forward role, but we have Wilshere, Cazorla, and Özil there already. Once Walcott and Gnabry come back, space on the wing gets that much harder to claim.

Rather than force Ox to fight fruitlessly against such competition, it seems the better part of valor to prepare him to fill a position we all know needs shoring up. Give him a chance. If it doesn't work, maybe we can splash necessary to land that 27-year old, injury-prone pseudo-DM from Real Madrid in January.