Category Archives: Jack Wilshere

Chambers’s versatility: an asset or a liability?

As we appear to approach closer and closer to a deal on Southampton’s Calum Chambers, the talk has focused on his youth and his versatility. Having played as a right-back, centre-back, and as a defensive midfielder, Chambers seems to check several boxes: he can compete with Debuchy (and Jenkinson?) at right-back while also supporting or competing with Kos, Per, and Verm at center-back. In a pinch, it’s possible that he could also slot in in the defensive midfield. All of this versatility should feel very reassuring as we fret over our options—will Vermaelen stay? Will we land Schneiderlin or Khedira? Absent any certainty around these and other questions, Chambers seems to settle our stomachs a bit. Should he, though? A quick review of other similarly “versatile” players should give reason for pause.

Chief among these cautionary tales would be one Jack Wilshere. For as wonderful and as occasionally breath-taking as he’s been, he’s struggled to find a regular position. Part of this, to be sure, comes from injuries, fitness, and competition. Taking a longer view, though, Wilshere appears a bit unsettled. Is he to become an attacking midfielder? If so, he’ll be competing with none other than Mesut Özil, widely and justifiably regarded as one of the very best at what he does. If Wilshere cannot compete with Özil, well, there’s no shame in that, is there? Casting about, the next most-natural location would be in the defensive midfield role. With Arteta and Flamini declining, it’s only natural that we look to Wilshere to step up as our next holding midfielder.

Unfortunately, as I’ve discusssed here, that role doesn’t suit him. He’s not a shielder, nor is he a tackler. He’s more comfortable at and better-suited to bombing forward, wreaking havoc in our opponents’ defensive third. That’s wonderful, and it’s something he’s very good at—but he may not be the best in the squad, not with Ramsey’s resurrection. As such, Wilshere has to carefully consider his career: to what position should he commit? Versatility, even in a system as fluid as Arsène’s, can become an albatross around one’s neck. That versatility, arguably, has hampered Wilshere’s progress just as much as injury has. It pains me mightily to write the following words: despite having been a Gunner since he was nine years old, he still hasn’t defined himself. Will he ever? I sorely want him to. It’s rare that we encounter a Gunner who’s also a Gooner.

Coming back to Chambers, what lessons can we draw from Wilshere’s experiences to this point? We’re told by none other than Arsène himself that the lad can play as many as three positions, four if we’re generous (right-back, centre-back twice, defensive midfield). That kind of flexibility is beguiling, especially as our pursuit of a ‘true’ defensive midfielder drags on. I almost feel as if I should create a key-board shortcut for “Khedira” and “Schneiderlin” just to avoid a few key-strokes. However, I worry that Chambers, like Wilshere, might struggle to define himself due to the very versatility that Arsène seems to admire. If the Chambers-Wilshere comparison doesn’t quite arrest your attention, perhaps a Chambers-Vermaelen one might? Like Wilshere, Vermaelen has found himself an odd man out, perhaps more because of form than injury, but hits ‘tweener status has relegated him to the end of the bench, so much so that the question “should Vermaelen be move to DM?” has become a bit of a running joke.

By contrast, consider Aaron Ramsey. For the first half of the 2012-13 season, he bounced around, displaying admirable versatility as he played as a winger, a defensive midfielder, and a right-back. None of this seemed to play to his strengths, skills, or aptitudes. He filled in well enough but didn’t drop jaws until he rediscovered himself as a box-to-box midfielder. Yes, his ability to fill in as needed was an asset to the club, but it wasn’t until he as allowed to play one role—as wide-ranging and all-encompassing as it was—that he truly started to shine. So I hope it will be with Wilshere. I would love nothing more than for the man to become the club’s most-talismanic player, even if it’s Ramsey’s name appearing in the spotlight more often.

If we are to complete a transfer for Chambers, I hope we learn a lesson from Wilshere’s fiftul progress and Ramsey’s spectacular season: commit the 19-year old to one position, rather than task him with learning the skills, mindset, positioning, and so many other elements of two or even three positions. Yes, a complete footballer should master all elements of the game, and, yes, becoming a complete footballer should know how to play as his own opposite in order to truly excel. However, at the risk of playing up a pun, one can be a jack-of-all-trades and an ace of none. If the pun rings true, then, where would Calum Chambers play? Would he sit behind Debuchy? At a reported £16m transfer-fee, that seems dicey. Would he commit instead to the defensive-midfield role? This might feel like a budget-buy (not that I’d put it past Arsène to pull such a move) after the pursuit of Khedira and Schneiderlin. Chambers is tall enough (1.82m) to play as a centre-back; could this be his destiny?

At some point soon, Chambers will have to commit to a position in order to become the kind of player he seems poised to become. Whether that’s to happen at Arsenal, Southampton, or some other club entirely is another question.

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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Will the Three Lions sink under its Liverpudlian leanings?

Another World Cup match, another defeat. England’s World Cup hopes now hang by a thread after a second consecutive loss, this time to Uruguay. The scoreline was the same was it was against Italy, and it leaves the Three Lions’ fate in the hands of the other teams, as they now need Italy to defeat Costa Rica and Uruguay to even have a prayer. From there, England have to defeat Costa Rica to finish level on points with them and Uruguay, hoping to then go through to the next round on goal-difference. What follows comes from the admittedly biased perspective of a Gooner, but the results so far do beg a certain question: has the decidedly Liverputian tilt of the squad undermine the Three Lions’ chances?

After all, the current squad includes no less than nine players from Liverpool and Everton—Johnson, Baines, Jagielka, Gerrard, Henderson, Sterling, Barkley, Sturridge, and Lambert. Add to that list Adam Lallana, who grew up supporting Everton; and Rooney, came up through Everton’s academy. Oh. I almost forgot Roy Hodgson, another Merseysider, raised by an Everton-supporting father and himself a former Liverpool manager. We might as well rename the Three Lions as Scouse FC.

There’s something to be said for the familiarity of playing together at the club level; as such, we might expect a certain chemistry from the five players from Liverpool who started against Uruguay. If nothing else, the Sturridge-Sterling-Gerrard-Henderson axis should have dominated, and one might also expect the Gerrard-Henderson-Johnson trio to be aware of their teammate Suarez, but neither came to pass on an afternoon that saw England win the possession-battle but lose the war. Instead of the increased familiarity and communication we might expect from a squad so dominated by Scousers, both of Uruguay’s goals came from the most-basic of miscommunications between players who arguably should know each other and their own roles far better.

For Uruguay’s first goal, Suarez got behind Jagielka to nod home, and Baines, the left-back, is completely out of the picture, showing a lack of communication and commitment to team defending. Had Baines dropped down, the lofted pass might not have even been possible as Suarez would have been marked by two defenders. The opening created by Baines’s lax tracking-back exposed Jagielka and invited the pass to Suarez, who is nothing if not a lethal finisher. It doesn’t seem like too much to ask of the Toffees teammates to  be more aware (a) of their responsibilities and (b) of the threat posed by their Merseyside nemesis. Instead, Suarez found himself unmolested to score the opener.

For Uruguay’s second goal, England’s defending was even more comedic and shambolic, as Suarez found himself on the end of a flicked-on header (Gerrard having been beaten to the ball, if memory serves) that allowed him to beat Jagielka before blasting home. This one is less-attributable to this Scousian axis, but the familiar elements are there. Would Wilshere have done any better? Debatable. With the likes of Suarez and Cavani pouring forward, most any defensive midfield pairing might feel overwhelmed. However, the all-but-immobile Gerrard showed his age on the play, getting beat positionally and aerially, and the result was all too predictable.

This is not a case for more Gunners in the squad, necessarily, as I doubt that Jenkinson would have fared any better on the right than did Johnson (who did, at day’s end, claim credit for an assist, dodgy though it may be). Then again, might Gibbs have done a bit better than Baines, who seemed more interested in getting forward than tracking back? Without a proper TARDIS, who’s to know? Hindsight is, after all, 20/20, and after a result like this one, it’s easy to point fingers.

With a healthy Walcott and/or Ox, and with Wilshere and/or Gibbs starting, the outcome of this match would certainly have been different, if only by scoreline. I’m not saying that the inclusion of a few more Gunners would have changed the outcome. For one, Walcott and Ox weren’t even available. Then again, given that this is the Three Lions’ second straight loss, it’s well-worth considering that starting Wilshere in place of Henderson or, God forbid, Gerrard, might very well have allowed England to dominate possession with greater purpose as the more-mobile (to put it mildly) Wilshere bombed forward into the teeth of Uruguay’s defense to create more chances for Rooney, Sterling, Welbeck, and Sturridge.

England’s hopes have not yet been extinguished, but it may be time for Hodgson to introduce a few more Londoners into the squad. It may be too late for the inclusion of the, um, charismatic Cole or Terry, but who’s to say that the fiestiness of Wilshere or Gibbs won’t overwhelm Costa Rica? There’s still a glimmer of hope that England will advance, and those hopes may very well rest on Gunners’ shoulders.

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Injuries to Wilshere and Ox are a Good Thing™

In an international match fraught with tension, on whose outcome a solution to climate change, racism, and the crisis in Ukraine no doubt depended, England and Arsenal suffered a setback when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was bundled into, causing his right knee to buckle and possibly damaging ligaments. The restults of a scan have yet to be released, but Ox is all but sure to miss the World Cup, a devastating setback to the lad just after earning a chance to shine. We very nearly suffered a double-dose as Jack Wilshere looked like he picked up a little niggle, although his may have been more of the crampy variety. It’s a good thing that so much hung in the balance here, or we might be left wondering just why the match was played at all. More to the point, though, for as much of a setback as Ox’s injury may be to the Three Lions, it may yet come as good news for Arsenal.

Awkward: Ecuador midfielder Carlos Gruezo landed awkwardly on the knee of the midfielder

Hear me out. I know we’ve come to expect the worst when it comes to injuries, but there could still be a silver-lining to this one. Flush off of an FA Cup victory that slayed the trophy-drought and silenced a good many critics. Arsène might be tempted to believe that the squad is in fine shape, strong enough to mount and sustain a more serious challenge for the Prem title. After all, as we’ve all told ourselves, we might have won it this year were it not for injuries to Ox, Diaby, Walcott, Wilshere, Ramsey, Cazorla, Podolski….um, I think that’s it for the major ones. Hard to keep track, to be honest. I won’t even try to list the various niggles here and there.

All of those injuries were ignored. In fact, the only response we saw from Arsène felt almost more like satire if not slap-stick when, in the January transfer-window, he tried to bolster a midfield decimated by injuries by signing a midfielder who was already injured. It feels like a screenplay of the sort that Ionesco or Godot might have written.

However, Ox’s latest injury might serve as enough of a shot across the bow to jolt Arsène into some kind of action that actually amounts to something. For manager as averse to making ambitious moves in the transfer-window, setbacks, crises, and debacles do seem to light some kind of fire under the man. Källström might have been more a farce than a force, but it was something. In August, the capitulation to Aston Villa was followed by the signing of Özil. Prior to that, it was the injury to Kieran Gibbs that accelerated the singing of Nacho Monreal. Heck, this plucky l’il blog owes its existence to injuries and urgent transfer-business that sometimes follow.

While hoping and praying that Ox’s injury is not serious, I do hope that it forces Arsène to see just how vulnerable this squad is. For as satisfying and exhilarating as the FA Cup victory was, there will linger a bit of regret (if not harsher feelings) around the idea that we might have done better in the Prem. When we were at full strength (sorry, Abou), we were top of the table. However, the heavy minutes logged by those who inspired us to get there—Ramsey, Özil, Giroud, and others—led to some increasingly jaded performances from some as well as outright injury to others. For a manager whose transfer-policy alternates between “no thanks” and “who’s leaving/injured? Okay, fine, get someone from France on the line”, this latest bad news offers a fresh reminder that, yes, reinforcements are needed.

If that’s not silver lining enough, Ox’s injury will likely prevent him from suffering further injuries during the more-intense action, heat, and humidity of mid-summer football in Brazil. This was a friendly match in Miami (no laggard when it comes to heat or humidity). While we’re on the subject of who won’t play in Brazil, Jack Wilshere’s play against Ecuador was apparently lackluster enough that he may lose his place on the pitch, something that sits just fine with me if it means that he stays firmly planted on the bench instead of careening recklessly around the pitch. There may be unanswered questions about how much Jack has progressed in the last few years, but his progression as a Gunner will not be helped by logging heavy minutes in Brazil, subjecting those precious ankles to even more wear and tear.

Arsène will be in Brazil as a commentator, so there’s hope that this give him a chance to consort and fraternize with some very good footballers. If Ox isn’t going to play, perhaps he could drag himself along a few meters behind Arsène, sighing, groaning, and wincing every once in a while. “Hey, boss!” he could call out. “There’s Edinson. Let’s go talk to him!” And so on…

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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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