'Now, more than ever, the onus is on Wilshere to reinvent himself, realise his talent' writes Richard Jolly, examining Jack Wilshere's diminished effectiveness relative his young counterpart Aaron Ramsey for Arsenal.
Ramsey rising, Wilshere waning: Arsenal’s ‘supposed star man is being rebranded as squad player’
There were 16 minutes remaining when Jack Wilshere trudged off at Goodison Park on Saturday. At the time, the temptation was to wonder if it was a piece of forward thinking. With two central midfielders already ruled out of Wednesday’s Champions League qualifier against Besiktas, a third was being preserved.
Sixteen minutes later, perceptions had changed. Attention was diverted back from Besiktas to Everton. Rather than accepting defeat, Arsene Wenger had conjured a draw. It was his short-term thinking that commanded the attention. When Wilshere was withdrawn, Santi Cazorla was introduced. The Spaniard was a catalyst for a memorable comeback.
To put it bluntly, Arsenal were better without Wilshere on the pitch. Some would say they often are. More pertinently, there is a growing school of thought that they will be this season. When Wenger has his phalanx of attack-minded midfielders all available, someone has to miss out. On current form, Wilshere is a deserving candidate for demotion.
Less than two years ago, he was seen as the standard bearer for their generation of young Brits. Since then, however, Aaron Ramsey has accelerated past his peer at such a speed that he now serves as an indictment of, rather than an example to, Wilshere. Such is the Welshman’s ubiquity that it felt inevitable that he was involved in their Goodison revival. The Londoners’ first goal was his fourth in five league games. To put it another way, that is as many as Wilshere has delivered in his entire Gunners career.
It is not a perfect comparison. Wilshere is more of a passer and a playmaker, a typical Arsenal midfielder. Ramsey, with his greater drive, has the attributes to enable him to be more prolific. Yet the finisher resembles the finished article whereas Wilshere remains Jack the lad, rebuked for smoking on holiday, waiting to realise his potential, rather than grabbing the opportunity to determine his destiny.
Ramsey did that, brilliantly, in the FA Cup final. Now, given Wenger’s much-mocked theory about fourth place being a trophy of sorts, more silverware of sorts is at stake. Beat Besiktas – the first leg ended 0-0 – and the Champions League riches are theirs. Lose and a proud record of participating in the European elite every season since 1997/1998 will end.
The circumstances have rendered Wilshere more important. Ramsey is suspended. Mikel Arteta and Theo Walcott are injured. Olivier Giroud, scorer of the leveller at Everton, is a doubt with an ankle problem. The two biggest buys in Arsenal’s history, Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez, are not in peak condition or optimum form yet. The Chilean is short of confidence, Wenger conceded at Goodison Park. Arsenal are short of fully-fit, eligible attack-minded players.
And so, with a weight of responsibility on Wilshere’s shoulders, there are two precedents to consider. At this stage of last season, Ramsey seized the initiative, scoring three times in the two games against Fenerbahce to ensure a hassle-free progress into the Champions League group stages.
Then there is the last European tie at the Emirates Stadium, otherwise known as Ozil’s agony. The German’s tame, casual penalty was saved by Manuel Neuer; his subsequent, inadequate attempts to protect left-back Nacho Monreal also contributed to Bayern Munich’s eventual victory. For many, it defined Ozil’s season. For some, it cemented an image of the £42.5 million (Dh258.5m) man. Arsenal’s record buy has to convince many that he has the personality to determine the biggest games.
The sense remains that he is too content to blend into the background. Wilshere is different, more bold and bullish, but the test is the same: can he prove the match-winner when it matters most? If he cannot, the consequences could be considerable, and not just for Arsenal’s bank balance, which Wenger has topped up every year with money from the Champions League pot.
Wilshere spent last season being shunted around. Ozil’s arrival made him Wenger’s preferred No 10, and Cazorla is an alternative creator who can occupy that role. Ramsey’s exponential improvement has made him the automatic choice as the box-to-box midfielder. The Englishman was accommodated, often unconvincingly, on either flank at times, but Wenger has signed a high-class winger, in Sanchez.
Another option is to deploy him as a defensive midfielder instead of Arteta, often a weak link in the pivotal away games. Again, though, it looks like a stop-gap solution and the expectation was that Arsenal teams would be built around Wilshere for years. Instead, supposed star man is being rebranded as squad player. Now, more than ever, the onus is on Wilshere to reinvent himself, realise his talent and return Arsenal to the Champions League.
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