While the game-changing arrival of Mesut Ozil to Arsenal has been hailed – largely correctly – as the catalyst for the club’s recent upsurge in not only form, but aura and mood too, one player who the move may have had an adverse effect on is Jack Wilshere.
Dethroned as the club’s chief playmaker, the most important central midfielder and general great white hope, Wilshere’s form seems to have nosedived in accordance with his status. This was summarised most neatly by the first hour or so of Sunday’s performance against West Brom, in which he spent as much time on his backside as he did on his feet, and was repeatedly dispossessed, outmuscled and out-thought by his opponents, as well as falling victim to low comedy when, to top everything off, he received a faintly hilarious poke in the eye. And all this coming, as it did, at the end of a week in which he’d been subject to a tiresome round of media hysteria. Not ideal.
Of course – as Dimitar Berbatov would no doubt attest – a cheeky fag and a few sub-par performances is nothing to get overly worked up about (not that that will stop the British press doing so anyway, especially in an international break) and Wilshere has hardly become a poor player overnight. But that’s not to say that his recent issues shouldn't be something of a concern to those Arsenal and England fans who’ve already invested a good deal of hope in the hugely talented midfielder.
Chiefly, there appears – although appearances can be deceptive – to be a physical issue at the core of matters. His signature on-the-ball forward burst has been notably lacking in recent matches, and the ease and/or willingness with which he hits the deck would seem to show that his beefy, elusive running style is not attainable right now. As an imperfect illustration, while Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil together suffer an average of one foul per league game this season, Wilshere has been fouled 17 times in seven outings.
So maybe it’s a break that’s needed, either for rest and refuelling purposes, or for pressure-relieving ones. Taking a young player – and Wilshere is still only 21, it should be remembered – out of the spotlight is a much-practiced piece of man-management in football, and one that received wisdom would suggest is highly sensible.
On the other hand, Wilshere continuing to play could be equally likely to hold the key. If his form does indeed stem from some sort of physical issue, more games could improve and build his strength and fitness. If the issue is a mental one, then perhaps the best way of ridding oneself of bad form is to simply play through it.
On Sunday, the latter response – to keep him playing – certainly worked: Wenger chose not to remove him at half-time, a point when many managers would have done, and Wilshere responded with an (eventual) elevation in his second-half showing, capping things with a goal. It was far from a perfectly satisfactory outcome, as Wilshere remained sluggish after the break and his goal had a great deal of fortune about it, but his ability shone through more than it had done previously.
Wilshere's physical struggles did not desist in the second half, but that's why Wenger kept him on: he trusts his midfielder's mental toughness, his capacity to turn things around through proactive means (i.e. playing), as opposed to passive ones (watching on from the sidelines).
If we are to take that game as microcosmic of a more general issue, then it looks as though Wenger believes the solution lies in forcing his midfielder to play himself out of his bad form. The greater question this raises, is how long he will have to do so. Santi Cazorla and Theo Walcott are due back after the international break to take precedent on the flanks, and all of Ramsey, Ozil, Mathieu Flamini and Mikel Arteta are currently performing at a much higher level than Wilshere. Seven into five, as the more astute mathematicians among you will already be aware, simply doesn't go, and the England man suddenly seems the most logical player to make way.
Essentially, Wilshere's new-found woes may be compounded by his club's new-found strength. With Arsenal now possessing such a strong squad, managerial ruthlessness becomes a necessity as opposed to a choice. And once his colleagues return, Wilshere might well be forced to sit out his bad form on the bench, even if his preference, and his manager’s, is to play through it.