There was mild controversy this week regarding Jack Wilshere and Arsenal. Unlike previous instances, this did not involve Wilshere disparaging the relative talent of Tottenham Hotspur or partaking in tobacco or booze. Rather, it was the revelation that Arsène Wenger had told Wilshere in this past summer that, should he find a suitable offer, he was free to leave Arsenal. Naturally, this was a major headline, especially as Wilshere is a popular player with the fans, and has enjoyed a renaissance of sorts, even if some of his recent performances have been overhyped.
Arsenal are offering Wilshere a reduced rate in weekly salary—£80,000 a week, somewhere in the realm of a 20% paycut. They are offsetting that by offering attainable bonuses based on game time, a reasonable compromise for a player who has played 147 Premier League games in just under nine seasons. Wilshere received a payrise in 2012, when he had just returned from injury; he then subsequently missed the majority of the next four seasons. Arsenal have been down this road before, especially with Abou Diaby.
The consequence is that Wilshere might leave, for Everton, West Ham, AC Milan or questionably Juventus (one of these things is not like the other). And while losing Wilshere might be a sentimental blow, in terms of Arsenal’s midfield, it is not a fatal blow.
Wilshere no longer has the energy to play as a wide playmaker. He also lacks the energy to replicate Aaron Ramsey’s box to box role, and the defensive discipline to play in place of Granit Xhaka. Despite Xhaka being in poor form most of this season, Wilshere played either alongside Xhaka or ahead of Xhaka, but in place of him. Mohamed Elneny’s renewed presence in the Arsenal side, especially his growing range in passing, has added a further complication. Wilshere has effectively played as a deep-lying playmaker in an England side that built a diamond around him that featured players such as Jordan Henderson and Jake Livermore in energetic, box to box roles ahead of him. Arsenal do not have that set-up, and when played in a deeper role, Wilshere either did not provide enough defensive support to Xhaka, or forced Xhaka to play in more of a box to box role, something that the Swiss is not adept at. Indeed, Xhaka’s recent performances, alongside Elneny or Ramsey, have been his best of the season, showing the value of defined roles, and a partner who provides defensive support.
A function of this is Wilshere’s physicality and energy, and while he did exceptionally well to get through Arsenal’s Christmas program, he hit a wall shortly after, perhaps because of the amount of game time he accrued over a short period. The result has been performances of middling effectiveness, right at the moment contract terms were being presented, perhaps solidifying Arsenal’s assertion that Wilshere is an injury risk, an assertion underlined this past week, when a flare up of a knee tendon prevented his return to the national team. Indeed, in recent big matches, Wilshere has been underwhelming: bad against Tottenham, ineffectively whingey against Manchester City in the Carabao Cup final, and not a huge factor in the two-legged tie against AC Milan, where Wilshere played in the #10 role, shunting Mesut Özil out wide. It is perhaps the role that Wilshere has the most physical capability for, but it is not the role he has the best tactical nous of. His movement in that position, as opposed to Özil, has never been great; he lacks an understanding of when to run beyond, and how to move into space in a way that creates space for others. While Wilshere is a very useful player in tight combinations, a situation that Arsenal admittedly face a lot, with his back to goal he usually makes the wrong decision. This is reflected in the Milan tie: Wilshere had 48 touches in the away leg, fewer than David Ospina and only more than Danny Welbeck, the centre forward, and while more of a part was played in the second leg, he still ended with fewer touches than Arsenal’s two central midfielders and only finished with more than Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Özil, the two wide players, by a function of those two being substituted. Indeed, Wilshere’s role in the second leg, once Arsenal had the lead, was effectively as a retainer of possession. While it is a useful role to have, and makes use of his excellent skill on the ball and range of passing, it is, at the end of the day, not a role that requires a pay raise to an injury prone player. While Arsenal can be accused of incompetence in recent contract dealings, in this case, they have taken the right course.