Arsenal FC | The unfulfilled promise of Jack Wilshere

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Arsenal FC | The unfulfilled promise of Jack Wilshere

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Amlan Majumdar

09/02/2016

Why do we fall?

Alfred said, “So that we can learn to pick ourselves up.”

However, the most important segment of this famous conversation comes next—“You still haven't given up on me?”

In life, these are the people who matter most. People who do not give up on you in your darkest times. In an increasingly 'professional' and 'corporate' world of football, where players and managers are mere 'assets', it is hard to find such people. Even the fans, who are not in it for any monetary gain, will at times turn your back on you. However, as the game battles to retain its humanity, Arsene Wenger stands alone as a bedrock of old-school mentorship, in a progressively dwindling list of people.

For all the allegations of frugality, obstinacy, and a lack of ambition, what Wenger is actually guilty of is believing a bit too much in his players.

For all the allegations of frugality, obstinacy, and a lack of ambition, what Wenger is actually guilty of is believing a bit too much in his players. Be it trusting in Denilson when he kept making those square passes, entrusting an 18-year-old Cesc Fabregas to replace someone like Patrick Vieira in the midfield, refusing to let go of Abou Diaby and Robin van Persie when they were spending season after season on stretchers, or trusting in Olivier Giroud to deliver despite all-round criticism—Arsene Wenger simply refuses to give up on his players. For fans this can be infuriating at times, but for the players he usually ends up being a father figure.

Jack Wilshere's deadline-day move to Bournemouth might seem a bit out of character for Wenger. But, he has not really given up on him. He would hardly give up on someone who made his debut in the Champions League at the age of 16. Someone who humiliated a veteran like Michel Salgado while making a cameo appearance on the left wing against Real Madrid in the 2008 Emirates Cup. Someone who took on the behemoths like Xavi and Andre Iniesta and came out on top during Arsenal's memorable win over Barcelona in the 2011 Champions League.

Guardian labeled him as “the midfielder we have been waiting for”, Telegraph called him the “bright young beacon of hope for under-performing England”, while the Independent said he is the “reason to tune in to the friendly nobody wanted” just before Wilshere made his national-team debut in a friendly against Hungary.

A few days later, after a friendly against Denmark, the then England manager Fabio Capello compared him with the likes of Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi, and Raul—some of the greatest leaders this game had seen—suggesting, not too subtly, what a great captain he will become for the England national team.

However, Wilshere's greatest accolade came from none other than Xavi. The former Barcelona maestro said, "With all respect, he doesn't play the English way."

He looked like a humanoid created by Barcelona's La Masia in collaboration with West Ham United's Academy of Football.

He showed the ability to play in a fast, intense, and physical manner which the English football fans lionize, but he also had the ability to create space with the drop of a shoulder, skip past opponents with a neat dribble, and pick out players ahead of him with defense-splitting passes. He looked like a humanoid created by Barcelona's La Masia in collaboration with West Ham United's Academy of Football.

Wilshere's rise was meteoric; his fall aching.

A stress fracture in a preseason friendly against the New York Red Bulls in 2011, an injury in the North London derby in 2012, a hairline fracture in his left foot during a match against Denmark in 2014, a ligament injury during a 1-2 defeat at home against Manchester United in 2014, and a broken fibula during pre-season training in 2015—and that is not even a near-complete list of Wilshere's injuries during his career so far. Some have blamed Arsenal's training methods, some have blamed the overtly aggressive nature of Wilshere's game, while the remaining have stuck with plain 'bad luck'.

 © Getty Images

Injuries have hindered his progress, perhaps, almost as much as his versatility. Versatility is a two-edged sword; ask Wayne Rooney about it. Wilshere first caught the attention as a left winger. During his loan spell at Bolton, he was used as a playmaker. Wenger has used him as a box-to-box midfielder, while former England manager Fabio Capello deployed him as a holding midfielder. In 2014, Wilshere wanted to be an advanced midfielder. One year later, he hoped to be a deep-lying playmaker like Xabi Alonso.

By the end of his transfer window, there is not one position in the Arsenal lineup where Wilshere would have been the first choice. He cannot displace Mesut Ozil, who is arguably the best playmaker in the Premier League. He is too limited as a winger to fit into the 4-2-3-1 formation Wenger uses. Granit Xhaka, Francis Coquelin, and Mohamed Elneny are all ahead of him in the holding midfielder role, Santi Cazorla is a better dictator of the pace of the game in the pivot, while Aaron Ramsey, who is injured at the moment, is ahead in the pecking order of the “Jack of all trades” role.

Despite his lack of appearances for Arsenal in the last season, Wilshere somehow made it to the Euro 2016 squad. An embarrassing exit at the hands of Iceland later, Roy Hodgson lost his job and Wilshere lost his place in the squad.

This season, Wilshere had seen just 37 minutes of football for the Gunners from the bench in the opening three games. As the transfer window edged towards its closure, it became evident that the midfielder would be shipped off elsewhere in order to gain some much-needed time on the pitch. Eventually, Bournemouth and Eddie Howe walked through the doors and convinced Wilshere to move 117 miles south to Dean Court.

But was Bournemouth the right choice?

Eddie Howe is one of the best young managers in England at the moment, and his Bournemouth side play a possession-based game. But, even so, it is vastly different from playing with a team like Arsenal.

AS Roma, AC Milan, and Crystal Palace were also interested in signing Wilshere, and perhaps a move to Italy would have helped him more. Although historically English players have not been the best of travellers, a move away from spotlight and media glare in England would have suited Wilshere. While learning a foreign language poses a problem, a season away from the fast-paced, physical game, and exhausting schedule of the Premier League could have allowed him to recuperate and regain his confidence, without exerting too much.

From what we know of this 24-year-old, he will not fade away quietly into the night.

Playing for a club like Bournemouth means you will have to spend more time without the ball, than with it. A midfielder will have to do more tracking back than bombing forward. Physically, that demands a lot out of a player, and more importantly, the relegation battle is an ugly business.

However, it seemed like Wilshere has chosen to put himself through that. Whether he is ready for it remains to be seen. But come the end of the season, it will not be just Bournemouth who will be fighting for their survival. Jack Wilshere will be too. And, from what we know of this 24-year-old, he will not fade away quietly into the night. This is perhaps his last chance to do justice to his talent and to the faith and belief of a 66-year-old man, who has been let down far too often recently.

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