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Jack Wilshere and the end of a dream

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Wilshere’s career at Arsenal will always be intertwined with a strong feeling of “what if?”

Arsenal v Fulham - Premier League Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

In many ways, it is fitting that Jack Wilshere and Arsène Wenger shared the same final home appearance for Arsenal. While it wasn’t known that that would also be Wilshere’s final appearance for the club, the writing was on the wall once it was announced that Wenger would be leaving. Few backed Wilshere more than Wenger, in many ways because it was Wilshere, not Cesc Fabregas or Robin van Persie or Samir Nasri, who represented the purest goal of Project Youth: a player developed by the club, with the values of club, and the playing style to match Wenger’s philosophy. With Wilshere and Wenger gone, it is truly the end of a dream.

Arsenal fans bought into the dream, to begin with, at least. As the trophy drought grew, and Arsenal didn’t spend as much as the clubs around them, though, the fanbase became restless. In a sense, Jack Wilshere was a cure to that. In 2009/10, Arsenal were top of the league before falling away in April as injuries and defensive frailties cost them. Ironically, having coped with Robin van Persie, they fell away as he came back. That summer, Cesc Fabregas wanted to leave for Barcelona, and very nearly did; it was Fabregas’ injury that had doomed the previous season.

Arsenal, having nearly lost Fabregas, and having lost Aaron Ramsey to Shawcrossing, didn’t sign a midfielder. They did, though, find a place in the team for Jack Wilshere, who spent the back end of 2009-10 sparkling while on loan at Bolton. Not only was Wilshere young, very good, and exciting, but he was also an Arsenal man, having joined the club at the age of nine, and come through the academy. He was, so to speak, local boy who came good.

We know how that all worked out; Wilshere had a wonderful 2010/11, and then spent the majority of the following five seasons fighting injury, before going out on loan to Bournemouth. At the beginning of this season, he was back, and was routinely called for by the fan base, especially those viewing Arsenal’s utterly dismal away form.

The problem, though, was that ultimately what Jack Wilshere was in 2017/18 was no longer at the standard of the idea of Jack Wilshere, or even of Wenger’s dream. Rather than being the linking player in midfield, who could take the ball, drive at defences and move the ball on quickly, he had lost both the physicality to be a number 8, and the burst that had both made him such a good dribbler, as well as resulting in so many fouls that punished his body, especially the ankles that had caused him so much trouble. Nor could the once energetic, leaping into challenges and covering immense amounts of ground midfielder be considered defensively secure enough to really play in central midfield; nor did he have the energy to play wide.

Wenger eventually faced the same problem that Eddie Howe saw last year: the reality of Wilshere was that he was no longer a number 8. Never a great number 10, with poor goal and assist records, and less comfortable with his back to goal, Wilshere was crowbarred into a #10 role. Wilshere, of course, did play in a deeper role in December, when he returned to the Arsenal first team, though not immediately.

At first, Arsenal were almost a diamond 442, with Alex Iwobi and Mesut Özil shuttlers around Granit Xhaka, with Wilshere at the tip. Then, Özil was returned to his number 10 role, Iwobi played further out wide, and Wilshere played in a deeper role, and overall did well. In playing throughout Christmas, though, he burned out, as if the adrenaline of returning to the first team got him through the intense period.

When Aaron Ramsey returned, Ramsey played as a #8. In the Europa League, to give Ramsey the freedom to make forward runs, while maintaining some semblance of a midfield shape, Özil was pushed to the right, and Wilshere was put in the #10 role, with the expectation that he would drop in when Ramsey pushed forward and Özil drifted inside. Wilshere will never be a #10: his off the ball movement isn’t good enough for the position. He’s someone who has to have the game in front of him, able to survey and be in action, rather than drift in and out of space the way Ramsey or Özil are able to do. For both Howe and Wenger, it was the way to get him in the team; for both Arsenal and Bournemouth, it wasn’t enough to keep him. Arsenal’s new manager, Unai Emery, saw him as a squad player. Eddie Howe didn’t take up the option to sign Wilshere, when he was free to leave in the summer of 2017. The dream of a young team, built around the quality of an impish, driving Jack Wilshere, was dead.

This does not mean that Jack Wilshere’s career is over, by any means. He played well enough to suggest that there is still enough of the pure quality left for him. His passing range is as good as ever. As Tim Stillman suggests in his column, he could play as a deep-lying playmaker, as Roy Hodgson used him for England. To do that requires both a coach willing to reinvent him and Wilshere buying into the idea. That he played the role for England suggests that is not a far-fetched idea. Yet it also requires game-time. Arsenal’s situation, with a new manager, with his own midfield preferences, and a demand to finish in the Champions League places, meant a reinvention was not a likely scenario.

In this sense, it is the end of Arsenal’s dream. At one point, Arsenal let players invent themselves. Yet as more teams became capable of first challenging, and then taking Champions League spots away, and the club moved away from a nucleus of players in their early twenties, the dream began to fade, a remnant of a past that promised a better future. For Arsenal and Wilshere, it was a future that was never fulfilled, always leading one to ask, What if?