By Michael King
As Arsenal manager Arsene Wegner sorts through the aftermath of Tuesday’s Champion’s League loss at Barcelona, there are of course few positive takeaways. Yet one, involving his young English midfielder, remains promising. Though his team was thoroughly outmatched Tuesday, Jack Wilshere continued to prove his versatility and quality as a midfielder for a top club.
It’s unclear if Wilshere himself felt he had something to prove entering the return leg at the Camp Nou, but he certainly played like he did, even if his teammates did not.
Barcelona headman Pep Guardiola now infamously singled-out the Englishman earlier in the week, claiming Wilshere lacked the ability to play for the Catalans and was only fit for the reserve team. Even more disparagingly, Guardiola suggested that Barca had many players of Wilshere’s ability.
There seemed to little motive behind the manager’s verbal attack, and even less factual support for his claims. In actuality, Wilshere has rapidly developed into an excellent midfielder, one whose importance is increasingly critical to his team.
His skills and style of play can’t easily be characterized by modern soccer terms. He’s not exactly an attacking midfielder, nor does he fit the holding role or the wing. Ultimately, Wilshere is a box-to-box player who is equally adept at attacking and defending.
In addition, the Englishman’s physical play and penchant for making well-timed tackles provides a nice complement to the opposite style of Arsenal’s midfield core. Though he makes the occasional strong tackle, Wilshere rarely gets booked and is less prone to fouling compared to his peers.
Along within fellow midfield marshal Samir Nasri, one of Wilshere’s best qualities has been staying healthy. During a year when players such as Cesc Fabregas, Alex Song, and Andrey Arshavin have all spent considerable time injured, the ability to stay on the field is vital.
Since he does get forward frequently, one might expect the young player to be frequently found on the score sheet. Yet he has only two goals in his young Premier League career. Wilshere has shown flashes of goal scoring brilliance, including a crossbar rattling strike against Birmingham in the Carling Cup final that led to a goal during the same sequence.
Simply, his contributions are not adequately captured statistically. Tuesday was an excellent example.
Few Arsenal players besides Nasri spent any time outside the defensive third against Barcelona. Yet Wilshere showed an extended willingness to backcheck and defend at the top of the 18-yard box. He won many balls; including executing a lunging tackle that stifled an excellent scoring chance after defender Laurent Koscielny fell down in the penalty area.
Perhaps Wilshere’s most enduring moment against Barcelona was the scoring chance he created during the last 10 minutes. Wilshere aggressively won a ball deep in the offensive end and sent what appeared to be a perfectly weighted pass on the foot of the sprinting Nicklas Bendtner. A weak first touch prevented the Dane from producing a shot. But it just as easily could have been a goal and advancement for the Gunners.
His leadership abilities on the field assured, the next logical step is to become a leader among his teammates. With many revered and established players at Arsenal, that’s not a simple process. But now, in defeat, we can see those qualities emerging.
“We have got great mental strength,” Wilshere told The Guardian on Wednesday. “There is disappointment in the dressing room, yes, but we have got to pick ourselves up and go to Manchester United to get the win. It is massive. We are still in two competitions, just three points behind United in the league and with a game in hand. Maybe now that we are out of Europe, we can be stronger in the league, concentrate on that more, and really push on to try to win it.”
As Wilshere helps push the North London team toward victory in two competitions, he is sure to gain more supporters. For the casual soccer fan, Wilshere is easily relatable with his high work rate and seemingly boundless energy.
At 19, he is still very young in terms of soccer potential and maturity. And he certainly still has much to learn. But given the experience he’s set to gain playing at highest level for Arsenal and England, it’s likely he’ll be leading both club and country for years to come.
Michael King is a contributing writer for The Soccer Guys. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.