Jack Wilshere begins the biggest year of his life this week. He is about to start his first full pre-season since 2010, and hopes to build himself a platform from which he can tackle both this season – a crucial one for Arsenal – as well as next summer’s World Cup.
If the last two Arsenal seasons have been rather desperate rescue-jobs, with Wilshere missing all of 2011-12 and some of 2012-13, there are hopes that this year will be different, for him and for his team.
Wilshere struggled in the summer of 2011 after first feeling his ankle during England’s game with Switzerland on 4 June, limping out of pre-season friendlies before eventually having ankle surgery. He was still recovering the following summer, and it was not until October 2012 that he returned to the side.
For the middle section of last season, Wilshere was Arsenal’s best player, delivering a home cup win over Swansea City through force of will before a wonderful performance at Wembley drove England to a 2-1 friendly win over Brazil. In a team almost tiresome in their niceness, Wilshere’s firework burst reignited Arsenal. Opta say that he was involved in more Premier League goals than anyone else last year – beyond the metrics of scoring or assisting, but often contributing the first tackle or an early pass.
But by the end of the season, as Arsene Wenger sought the right balance to secure fourth, Wilshere, still adjusting to the workload, was excluded. Needing a solid base, Wenger paired Aaron Ramsey and Mikel Arteta deep in midfield. Needing incision, he played Santi Cazorla, Tomas Rosicky and Theo Walcott in front of them.
Obviously a fit strong Wilshere will certainly start for Arsenal – it is inconceivable that he should not. But Wenger will have to find the best role for him in the 4-2-3-1 system – he is very good in either the defensive or the attacking midfield line, but neither role seems quite perfect for him yet. With a genuine pre-season behind him, though, Wilshere can recover that remarkable strength and resilience that has made his career so thrilling so far.
With better forward additions, Arsenal can challenge for trophies again this season, as Wilshere himself has enthused. But, at the end of the season, football’s greatest prize is on offer, and Wilshere will be even more important. It could conceivably be argued that Arsenal have the midfielders to cope with Wilshere’s absence but England certainly do not.
Even after a handful of international caps, the national Wilshere-dependancy is striking. Without him, there is less bite, drive, imagination and little style – Wayne Rooney seems to be the only player liable to make something happen. England are never going to pass their way into the latter stages of a World Cup but with Wilshere and Rooney they might just spark their way there. Of course, they need to qualify first – a process to which Wilshere will be crucial too. It all starts this week.