Because of Murphy's Law of Averages Affected Injuries to Arsenal's Midfield, Aaron Ramsey sustained his third hamstring injury of the season last week. This is not to do solely with Arsenal's training methods, the injury-proneness of the player, or other underlying issues: this is to do with Jack Wilshere returning from injury, and the two can never simultaneously be in centre of midfield together. Those are the facts.
For the purpose of seeing Jack Wilshere develop and seeing Arsenal win games, Ramsey's injury might not be a terrible thing. Arsène Wenger was always going to try and find a way to get Wilshere into the side, and in Arsenal's new 4-1-4-1 formation (the default system--for better or for worse--against most sides these days) with Mesut Özil already forced out wide, there's a small chance that Wilshere would be played in a wide position. Thus, that'd mean either bringing Wilshere into the side ahead of Santi Cazorla, in the best run of form of his Arsenal career, or ahead of Ramsey; now, Wilshere's role and position seems relatively clear.
This is probably best for Wilshere, because in the first half of this season, and at many times during last, he had the look of someone unsure of what his role was supposed to be. Part of this is down to injury and circumstance: last season, Aaron Ramsey shot ahead of Wilshere, and instead of growing in the #10 role, Arsenal bought Mesut Özil, whom Wilshere was never going to play ahead of with any sort of regularity. In the first half of last season, Wilshere played best on the right hand side, becoming more decisive in the final third and improving his final ball.
Ramsey, of course, got injured, with Wilshere replacing him alongside Mikel Arteta in Arsenal's double pivot. There were matches of genuine quality--at Aston Villa, for example, where Wilshere scored and assisted, and in the first 30 minutes against Bayern Munich, where Mathieu Flamini and Wilshere were controlling the midfield against the best side in the world--but there were far more matches where Wilshere may have played individually well but at the expense of Arsenal's system, or where Wilshere just played flat-out poorly. The best example of the former is Liverpool away, where Wilshere gained praise for 'having kept on going' and 'showing passion for the shirt', but amongst all that, Wilshere effectively left Mikel Arteta isolated against Liverpool's midfield of Gerrard, Henderson, Coutinho and Raheem Sterling as Liverpool ran riot. And after that, Wilshere got injured, and played little part as Arsenal finished 4th and won the FA Cup.
Ahead of this season, Arsène Wenger changed Arsenal's system, allowing Wilshere and Ramsey to play together ahead of a holding midfielder--Arteta or Flamini--with Özil and Alexis Sánchez or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain out wide. Arsenal's struggles at the beginning of the season are well-documented, and that was only emphasised with Wilshere in the side; Arsenal won only three games (Crystal Palace, Anderlecht and Besiktas) out of the eleven that he started, and of those three wins, two (Crystal Palace and Anderlecht) were won after Wilshere had been substituted off the pitch. While it isn't fair to put Arsenal's dismal record in those games entirely on Wilshere, it is factually correct to assert that they are better at winning football matches when he has not started.
However, there is little choice other than to start Jack Wilshere in the coming weeks, at least for the next three matches: Palace away, Monaco at home and Everton at home, which Ramsey will certainly miss. Jack will take Ramsey's role in the side. Ramsey has come under much criticism this season, with a lack of goals the obvious difference from last season, as well as getting to grips with a new system, a shortage of confidence, and injury problems. Yet against Manchester City and Aston Villa, his role was vital, as Martin Keown explains:
Cazorla has the ability to stitch himself into the play going forward when Arsenal attack and he is working hard defensively too, as we saw in Arsenal's impressive win over Manchester City. But Ramsey is the player who Wenger primarily wants to see coming back to form a two-man shield in front of their defence. Against City and Villa, the Wales international was far more team-aware of where he needed to be to fill any holes. Ramsey can still gamble and go forward when Arsenal have good possession, but he is picking his moments far more carefully than before, and he does not join attacks as much as he did. It was great to see that he had the same discipline against Villa as he did against City and, in both games, knowing when to go and when to sit gave Arsenal the right balance in defence and attack.
It is that balancing box-to-box role that Wilshere will take on. In the new system, Cazorla is the first pass, because he is the best player at evading pressure, and opening up the pitch. After that, Cazorla passes either wide, or to the box to box player, who has seen a good moment to go forward. If the attack develops, Cazorla then joins in to create, as he did with distinction against Manchester City. But with 4-1-4-1 being a very counter attack heavy formation, Arsenal's midfield are much deeper. Furthermore, Francis Coquelin has had his two midfielders offering very close protection, forming a deep block, requiring the opposition to pass wide, and then try and cross into the box, if Arsenal execute the defensive shape correctly.
The question, then, is whether Wilshere can be disciplined enough to smartly choose his moments to join in the attack, and to protect Coquelin. Earlier this season, Wilshere was not showing that nous--against Hull City, he let Tom Huddlestone run off of him, and he did the same days later against Anderlecht. It was also a problem last season against Liverpool, and in the season before: Wilshere is quite often aggressive, and is a one-man pressing unit, at the expense of Arsenal's functioning defensive unit.
At this stage, it is not a question of Wilshere's talent. He is exceptionally talented, with a wonderful first touch and excellent passing range. His ability to evade pressure is only second to Mesut Özil and Santi Cazorla. Yet, it his discipline and decision making that is under question. When he dribbles, he often dribbles too much, into the opposition before losing the ball. He has more unsuccessful dribbles per 90 minutes (3.9) than successful dribbles (3.1). Comparatively, Özil is at 2.2 unsuccessful dribbles to 2.7 successful dribbles, Santi Cazorla is at 1.3 to 2.7, Aaron Ramsey 1.5 to 1 and Alexis is at 3.1 to 3.6. All lose the ball through dribbling less frequently than Jack Wilshere.
But now Wilshere has a run of games to show that he can be a talented, but also disciplined, midfielder that doesn't disrupt Arsenal's functioning midfield system. If he can pull it off, questions over his future position and role become a lot easier to solve; however, if the trend of the last two and a half seasons continue, then it becomes much harder to see a successful Arsenal side that has Jack Wilshere in its starting XI.