After 14 very strange, eventful and long months, the news that Jack Wilshere is to return to the squad for tomorrow's game against Norwich is a boon for Arsenal fans, yet it may take time for him to return to the main eleven, and potentially even longer for him to replicate the brilliant levels of performance he showed in the 2010/11 season. Even when he is ready to return, he may struggle to break back into the team.
When he broke through, he was playing a deep midfield pair alongside Alex Song in a 4-2-3-1. This was in Song’s phase of actually being a defensive midfielder (or at least more so than last season), so Wilshere had a lot of freedom to roam forward and impose himself on the game offensively. He was nothing short of a revelation. If he is to assume the same role, the man he will be challenging for a place will be Abou Diaby, while Mikel Arteta and Santi Cazorla have seemingly rendered themselves all-but undroppable.
The Frenchman also had an injury-ravaged 11/12 season, but has made a strong start this season, topped off by his supreme showing in the 2-0 win at Anfield. He has always been one of the most frustrating players, on account of his extraordinary ability combined with his maddening inconsistency, and in these first 5 games we have seen both sides of Diaby. There was the aforementioned Anfield version, followed by the variation who showed himself in the second half against Montpellier. He was bordering on being a liability at points, constantly losing possession and looking extremely lethargic. Wilshere, in comparison, was remarkably consistent, despite his youth, rarely putting in anything resembling a poor performance.
In the matches in which Arsenal will look to absorb pressure and play on the counter attack, Diaby will be the preferable option
Like Diaby, Wilshere offers a drive and creativity in the box-to-box role. With lingering concerns over the fitnesses of both, rotation between the pair depending on the game will hopefully see the pair remain fresh and allow them to play to their respective strengths. Diaby offers far, far more as a physical presence than his counterpart, where Wilshere is more creative and hence is a greater asset in the more closed off games, of which Arsenal will have more. In the matches in which Arsenal will look to absorb pressure and play on the counter attack, Diaby will be the preferable option.
The other challengers for that position in the midfield are Aaron Ramsey and to a somewhat lesser extent, Francis Coquelin, who is more likely to act as cover for Arteta, but will still be in consideration for the box-to-box role. Ramsey has looked impressive thus far and while Wilshere is still recovering he must be considered to be ahead of him in the pecking order, and should he continue it there is no reason for Wilshere to jump straight back ahead of him. Wilshere will have to go his way to proving himself worthy of a place again, which can only be a good thing for both him and the club.
Some have suggested the option of playing Wilshere in behind the centre forward and pushing Cazorla to the right-hand side, but this fails to take into account that he was in no way ready to play as a ‘number 10’ before his injury. The few times he did take the position he looked lost and unable to influence the game. He was not ready then, he will only be less so now.
However, it is worth noting that when Wilshere emerged with the reserves, he was playing wide on the right hand side, cutting in onto his favoured left foot. Ramsey played in a similar way to this against Manchester City, based on the right but spending a lot of time infield, with greater creative influence (although unlike Wilshere he is right-footed), showing there is an opening for such a player in that area in this Arsenal side. Cazorla’s aptitude out wide could also see him develop an understanding with either of those two players, drifting wide as they go central, as he does on the side with Lukas Podolski.
Relying on Arteta for a full season, with only Coquelin and Frimpong as his backup would unfair on the Spaniard and a recipe for disaster. Arsène Wenger is said to envisage Diaby to be a holding midfielder in the long term and he did partner Wilshere on a number of occasions in the 10/11 season; most notably in the infamous 4-4 draw with Newcastle. For the 48 minutes before Diaby received his red card, the midfield trio of himself, Wilshere and Cesc Fàbregas looked outstanding, with the former two operating as a perfectly balanced midfield pivot. The idea of a Diaby-Wilshere-Cazorla midfield is one that, fitness permitting, will grow and grow through the season.
The plethora of options in Arsenal’s midfield (it has been many years since one could legitimately say that) means that there is no need to rush Wilshere back into first team proceedings, nor play him every week when he is fit. Part of the cause of his original injury was his being overused through the domestic season, due to the fact that there was very little depth and what little backup there was - Diaby and Ramsey - spent much of it injured. Their fitness, beside the emergences of Coquelin and Frimpong remove any strain from Wilshere almost entirely in the short term. But when he does return (in time), expect him to slot back into the box-to-box role in intermittent games, sharing duties with Diaby and Wilshere, as well as more of Diaby in the position Arteta has made his own. There are most definitely openings on both flanks, with no option really having nailed down a place - I fully anticipate that he will be used on the right and if he re-adapts to it quickly, he may even find most of his playing time this season to be there.
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