Wembley may come too soon for Wilshere, but he's doing right things for next season
Arsenal’s superb recent run of eight consecutive victories and 10 matches unbeaten was largely achieved with a settled side. The first half of the stretch featured only minimal game-by-game changes by the Gunners: Gabriel, Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny were all given a chance to shine at centre-back, Calum Chambers and Hector Bellerin shared the right-back spot and Tomas Rosicky, Danny Welbeck, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain were all handed starting berths at various times.
From then on, Arsene Wenger’s XI remained consistent: starting with the 4-1 home win over fellow top-four contenders Liverpool in early April, the Frenchman named the same team for the next six games, something of a rarity in the modern game and the first time Arsenal had done so since 1994.
Mertesacker and Koscielny established themselves at the heart of the defence; Bellerin made the right-back position his own; Aaron Ramsey was moved to the right with Alexis Sanchez on the left and Mesut Ozil fielded behind Olivier Giroud. Santi Cazorla was dropped back to play alongside Francis Coquelin.
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The line-up was so constant that those on the fringes became almost forgotten. Walcott, one of those condemned to the sidelines through a combination of injury and the excellent form of Wenger’s trusty go-to men, announced his return with a bang by netting a hat-trick against West Bromwich Albion on the final day of the league season, while Kieran Gibbs’ performances in that game and against Sunderland four days previously suggested he could pose a challenge to Nacho Monreal at left-back.
The man Arsenal fans were most excited to see return, though, was Jack Wilshere. The 23-year-old has endured another season dogged by ankle problems, causing him to miss six months of action and make only nine starts in the Premier League, plus a further six in other competitions.
His recent reinstatement to the first team was, therefore, extremely welcome ahead of Saturday’s FA Cup final with Aston Villa at Wembley. Having already qualified for the Champions League group stages, Arsenal are now hoping to win England’s primary domestic cup competition for the second successive year to ensure that this has been a positive campaign. After coming in from the wilderness, Wilshere could suddenly have a very big role to play as the Gunners attempt to realise that ambition.
"He is not a ball-winner"
After being brought off the bench for his first appearance since November in Arsenal’s 3-1 win at Hull earlier this month, Wilshere demonstrated exactly what he can bring to the side in just 22 minutes on the pitch.
The England international was full of drive and energy, making direct runs right through the middle of the pitch and playing penetrative balls forward. He also kept possession well, completing 19 of his 20 passes and helping Arsenal take the sting out of the game in the closing moments. It was an impressive cameo, especially considering how long the 23-year-old had gone without playing competitive football.
There is still some debate about what Wilshere’s best position is. He has been fielded as a No.10 in previous seasons, handed the creative mantle in advanced areas of the pitch.
More recently, Wenger has deployed him on the right, allowing him to drift infield onto his left foot. It's meant he can get involved in build-up play and find pockets of the space between the lines, but it's also handed him some defensive responsibilities out wide.
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His most likely role in the long-term, though, remains in the centre of midfield. Wilshere’s biggest strength is his ability to collect the ball on the half-turn and burst forward in possession. When his starting position is too high, he is robbed of the chance to do so and inevitably drops deeper in search of the ball, leaving Arsenal with too few numbers at the top of the pitch and excessive congestion in the middle. Wilshere is still prone to moments of rashness and probably lacks the discipline to play as the midfield holder, as Wenger himself intimated when he told the press last October: “He is not a ball-winner... I believe he is more a guy who you want to get close to the final third. To keep him deep you take a big part of his efficiency away. He is a guy who likes to penetrate when there is many people, he can provoke free-kicks, he can create openings. It would be detrimental to his strengths in a position that is not his strength.”
Where Wilshere can thrive, then, is as a shuttler alongside a more defensive-minded destroyer such as Coquelin, whose breakthrough, while not as exciting or glamorous as Tottenham Hotspur’s Harry Kane’s, has been of at least equal significance to his side. Such a position would allow Wilshere to get forward and join the attack while also taking advantage of his brilliant feet in tight areas, plus his ability to receive possession on the turn and embark on his trademark runs from central zones. In the 4-1 defeat of West Brom on Sunday, for example, he attempted four take-ons – no player on the pitch tried more.
Wilshere has done all he can in the battle to start Saturday’s FA Cup final, but the Wembley showpiece may have come just a tad too soon for the 23-year-old. Cazorla and Coquelin are likely to continue their partnership in midfield, meaning Wilshere’s best chance of inclusion is probably on the right.
In the long-term, however, Wilshere’s future surely lies in the middle of the park. The signature display of his career remains the 2-1 win over Barcelona at the Emirates Stadium in 2011, highlighting his inconsistency and injury troubles since (despite making his Premier League debut in 2008/09, Wilshere has only made more than 20 top-flight starts once in the subsequent six seasons).
Wilshere is clearly an outstanding talent, and it's to be hoped that he can prove exactly that in a fully-fit 2015/16. A high-class performance in the FA Cup final would remind Arsenal what they have been missing.