England's Xavi? Wilshere shows Capello he needs freedom to shine
Against Messi & Co the teenager proved that he can supply the creative vision his country has often lacked
Friday 18 February 2011
Jack Wilshere left the Emirates on Wednesday night with the shirts of Xavi and Lionel Messi in his bag. Those are two mementoes that most teenage footballers would treasure for the rest of their lives but then there are precious few teenage footballers who are capable of thriving in the presence of those two maestros.
Wilshere was, as Arsène Wenger said, outstanding in Arsenal's 2-1 win over Barcelona. Not just when Arsenal started to pick off their tired opponents in the last 20 minutes but also in that dispiriting period midway through the first half when it was an effort for the home side to get even the briefest periods of possession.
If Wilshere had been playing with a Barcelona crest on his shirt on Wednesday night we would have been acclaiming another shining talent from that club's prodigious academy. But Wilshere was raised 20 miles north of Arsenal's training ground in the Hertfordshire town of Hitchin and he looked as at home in the modern one-touch game as any other player.
Asked on Wednesday about his recent full England debut and then the win over Barça, Wilshere said it had been "a crazy couple of weeks" but also, he added, "probably the best couple of weeks of my life. It's the biggest night of my Arsenal career so far.
"They have players like Xavi, [Andres] Iniesta, Messi – I have been watching them for years now. I watched them in the World Cup and many of them are World Cup-winners. It is by far the biggest night of my Arsenal career so far. We still have a job to do at the Nou Camp."
That crazy couple of weeks began at the Parken Stadium in Copenhagen nine days ago with England's friendly against Denmark. Asked after that game how he regarded Wilshere's future with England, Fabio Capello, who had just given the player his first international start, said that he anticipated the 19-year-old's forthcoming meetings with Barcelona with interest.
Playing Barça, Capello said, would give Wilshere the chance to test himself against the very best. "Wilshere is a very good player," Capello said then. "He is young and has played a lot of games this season. I don't know what will happen in the next month but the games they [Arsenal] play against Barcelona will be really strong and it will be really interesting. Denmark played a lot of passes and had possession but Barcelona are a little bit better."
Capello has never tried to disguise his fascination with Barcelona and that Spain national team for whom the La Liga champions provided six of the players (seven if you include David Villa) that started the World Cup final in July. He would like England to play that way. He just does not think that his team are capable of doing so.
So it is hard to underestimate just how impressed Capello will have been that Wilshere more than held his own on Wednesday night. It was Wilshere who slid in to win the ball in midfield to turn the tide in one phase of play. It was Wilshere who played the first crucial one-touch ball that set Arsenal in motion for their second goal. It was Wilshere who was confident enough to reprimand Cesc Fabregas for a loose pass.
The question that it begs of Capello is whether, having seen Wilshere's creativity play such a key role in the win, he reassesses the way in which he wants to deploy the Arsenal teenager for England. Wilshere said after Wednesday's win that he found it "easy" to play at Arsenal: "We play similar to Barcelona and that's the kind of football I like to play. It's easy to fit into a team like Arsenal."
But how does he fit in with England? Playing Wilshere as a holding midfielder alongside a more attack-minded central-midfield partner in Capello's unchanging 4-4-2 formation looked, after last week's game in Copenhagen, like he was being forced to change his game. After Wednesday night, playing Wilshere in a holding midfield role just looks like a waste of his talent.
In recent years England managers have often had to wrestle with the problem of how best to deploy their most creative players, be they Steven Gerrard, Joe Cole or Wayne Rooney. Wilshere's best position is obvious. He needs a holding midfielder alongside him like Gareth Barry or Scott Parker if he is to be free to do his best.
Wilshere's progress has been astonishingly quick this season, beginning with his first-ever league start against Liverpool and Gerrard at Anfield in August. This time last season he was on loan to Bolton Wanderers. For the early part of last season he had been behind Aaron Ramsey in the pecking order but Ramsey's long recovery from his terrible injury in February last year has opened the door for Wilshere.
Like all young players, his form is liable to wax and wane but on Wednesday his maturity was startling. He is a serious character on the pitch. "Keeping patient was vital. They are very good and can keep the ball and for the first 20 minutes we were chasing," he said. "We had to keep our shape and hit them on the counter attack and push up hard."
Wilshere took another step up the ladder on Wednesday night and it will not have gone unnoticed by Capello. The intriguing thing is whether the England manager is prepared to give him the same freedom to play against Wales in the Euro 2012 qualifier on 26 March as Wilshere was granted when Arsenal toppled the best club side in the world.
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