Arsenal midfielder Jack Wilshere back in the thick of it after 14-month lay-off
Arsenal midfielder is left weary but unscathed on his long-awaited return
Tuesday 02 October 2012
If books are ever written about Jack Wilshere, these 62 mixed minutes in an empty Hawthorns will warrant a mention. A 1-0 defeat by West Bromwich Albion in National Group 1 of the Under-21 Premier League in front of 338 people is not the most glamorous stage. Wilshere's last competitive match, 16 months ago, was a European Championship qualifier at Wembley and his team-mates have this week been preparing for tomorrow's Champions League home match against Olympiakos.
But there can be no doubting the importance to Wilshere, Arsenal and England, of yesterday's return. It might not have been precisely what he was hoping for. It will not lead to an immediate first-team recall, with Wilshere – who said he was "shattered" afterwards – in need of more work at this level. But it was a start.
Wilshere began in his favoured role as the brain of a 4-2-3-1 system. His great friend Emmanuel Frimpong, who made his own injury return last week, was just behind him. At this gentle pace, Wilshere could snap at opponents in the hunt for the ball.
Theo Walcott had said Wilshere "just wanted to get whacked on the ankle, whacked everywhere", and in George Thorne he found an opponent willing to oblige him. There was only one tackle, with Sam Mantom, in which Wilshere declined to participate.
There was little which Frimpong had not prepared him for. "When you're training with me every day you're always going to come back with a few knocks so he's used to that," Frimpong said. "I've given him a few testers so he's tough."
What makes Wilshere so distinct within English football is not his strength but his creative gifts. Early in the first half, he played a delightfully disguised through-ball to Nico Yennaris, who could only shoot at the goalkeeper. Wilshere was keen to take the ball on the half-turn and run with it; that Gascoigne burst is not back yet, but the Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger, did predict that would take "three months' competition".
As the game went on, Wilshere looked like a man who was playing his first football match since July 2011, the New York Red Bulls friendly out of which he limped after just seven minutes.
Twenty minutes into this game, he started to slow down and took time to breathe heavily between moves. "When you have been out for so long it's only natural that you're going to be tired," Frimpong said of Wilshere afterwards. "He needs more games to get back fit playing again."
Wilshere dropped deep, forcing Frimpong forward. "Jack just wanted to get in the game more and who am I to tell him he can't play where he wants?" said Frimpong. "If he wants to play a bit deeper and get the ball, that's fine by me."
It was a surprise to see Wilshere at the start of the second half, especially after West Bromwich had gone ahead.
But he completed 17 more useful minutes before Terry Burton withdrew him for Kris Olsson. Wilshere will need more of this. He should play in the same competition against Reading at Barnet next Monday.
"To be honest, I thought he did well," said Frimpong. "After 14 months out he did very, very well. He can be pleased with his performance today. I think the England fans and the Arsenal fans should be excited to see him back playing football."
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