Jack Wilshere had a fantastic performance last night against Slovenia and once again raised questions for me as to where Wenger will play Wilshere for Arsenal next season.
In Roy Hodgson’s English set up Wilshere is asked to play in what Arsenal supporters call “the Coquelin role”; at the base of a midfield diamond as the lone defensive midfielder. My recollection of him playing there is that he struggles mightily to cover the ground that someone like Coquelin is able to cover. The result is that instead of perfectly timed tackles that break up play, more often than not, Jack is late in the tackle and his opponent easily gets by him.
That wasn’t the case entirely last night. Jack is credited with 4/6 tackles and 4 interceptions, which indicates to me that the Slovenians decided to test him. This is especially true if you note that England only attempted 19 tackles on the day and 6 were by Jack.
Normally 4/6 tackling would be a pretty decent day but the problem is that the two tackles he missed were so bad that I forgot about the previous four good tackles. They happened within minutes of each other and right before he scored England’s first.
The first was well up the pitch, he was out of position, came sliding in from the side and slightly behind, and the man with the ball simply walked past his outstretched, flailing legs. The second was a few minutes later, he was covering for the right back, but again was so far out of position that he chugged to get back to the ball and overran his tackle so badly that he had to loop around to get back. Midfielders miss tackles all the time, Coquelin was dribbled past 27 times out of 98 attempted tackles, but the problem is for Jack that both instances made him look amateurish.
Wilshere is also not very accurate with his long passes. I know this gets on people’s pecks when I say it, because I say it all the time, but your defensive midfielder needs to be one of the best players on the pitch with his long passes. Think of all the best DM’s in the world – Busquets, Xabi, etc. – they are all world class ball strikers who open opponents up with their incisive long passes. Wilshere is not quite at that level yet and over the last two games against Ireland and Slovenia he’s only hit 6/11 accurate long passes. This is also something Coquelin struggles with, hitting just 32/54 long passes for Arsenal this season.
But Wilshere not being insanely good as a defensive midfielder makes sense because Jack doesn’t play or train for defensive midfield at Arsenal. In fact, this might have been his 5th time in the role in his career.
This isn’t to say that Jack Wilshere isn’t a talented player. The two goals he scored against Slovenia were a great example of what Wilshere can bring to the table. And Wilshere is a fighter. If he lacks a skill in a certain department, I’m sure he will hone that skill.
But him playing so deep for England does raise questions about where he’s going to play for Arsenal. In theory, Wilshere could be the “competition” for Coquelin’s starting spot that everyone wants Wenger to buy. This would solve a lot of the midfield congestion that Arsenal currently have with the other three positions.
But Wenger doesn’t see it that way. He sees Jack as a #10 or a #8. That leaves Wilshere competing with Ozil, Cazorla, and Ramsey for a place in Arsenal’s midfield.
And he’s a huge talent, one who has a great love for Arsenal as he recently stated ”I’ve grown up at Arsenal. As long as Arsenal want me, I’m happy.” So getting him on the pitch is important for the Gunners. But where? Where does Wilshere fit? How far up the pitch does he play? Is he a #10? A #8? A #4?
In a way it’s a good headache for Wenger to have. He’s got Ozil, Ramsey, Cazorla, and Wilshere battling it out for two places. And not only that but Wilshere is developing some skills with England that he might not have developed at Arsenal — adding diversity to his game and allowing him to play in almost any of the three midfield positions.
Wilshere has been out so long with injury that he’s struggled to find a consistent place in the Arsenal midfield. And that’s why for now Jack will have to remain an enigma: playing defensive midfield for England during the summers and attacking midfield for Arsenal during the winters. But either way, Wilshere is an enigma who scores some pretty special goals for club and country.
Ephemeroptera, the mayfly. The mayfly is an insect which lives just one day as adult. Some species live less than a day, sometimes the adult mayfly can live just a few hours. Hence the “ephemera” in the name Ephemeroptera.
By the time we humans have seen the mayfly, however, he or she is much older than just a single day. Most of the mayfly’s life is spent building up their strength, waiting for the day they are called up. A mayfly can spend two years in this nymph stage, biding his time, building his strength, working on his game.
And then one day, in May or June he leaves his river bed. It’s not just a call for him, it’s a call for all of the mayflies. The mayfly emerges as an adult in a huge bloom of life — a spectacular cloud of insects dancing and jigging in the sky together. They have to all work together, they have precious little time, their biological clock is ticking.
There are few football stories that are more profoundly ephemeral than Arsenal’s Abou Diaby. Diaby sprung onto the scene in 2006. Arsenal had a Patrick Vieira sized hole in midfield and it looked like Wenger planned to fill it with Abou Diaby. Physically, Diaby resembled Vieira in that he was tall, dark, and French. He was also often described as powerful, dominating, and combative in the official Arsenal post-match writeups, though for many of his performances I would have described him less as powerful and more as technically gifted, one-step ahead of everyone else on the pitch, and light on his feet.
As a 16 year old at the famous French football academy Clairfontaine , Abou Diaby was widely considered to be the best player in his position. Despite a few injury stricken months at Auxerre, Diaby was so widely respected and recruited that he caught the attention of Jose Mourinho. The Chelsea manager tried to bring Diaby to Stamford Bridge but he rejected Mourinho saying that Wenger was the better manager.
Diaby seemed to come to England with a target on his back. No one likes to be made to look foolish and Diaby was so technically gifted that he could make even the best midfield opposition look like he was playing in treacle as Diaby tiptoed around him and then set off to play in the perfect through ball for a teammate to score.
On May Day of his very first season at Arsenal, Diaby had an imperious match against Sunderland and Arsenal ran out to a 3-0 win. In injury time, with no hope of Sunderland getting back into the game, Diaby took a touch on the sideline near the cameras and Sunderland defender Dan Smith raced over and simply stamped on Diaby’s ankle. My recollection was that Smith had real malice in that tackle. Smith looked like a defender who was tired of being beaten by this silky smooth dribbler and went over to kick lumps into him. I’ll never know what was in Dan Smith’s heart but intentional or not, the damage was done.
Dan Smith’s tackle fractured and dislocated About Diaby’s ankle and ended his season. Some say that tackle ended Diaby’s career. Diaby scored one goal and provided just one assist in 9 League games before injury ruled him out for nearly a year. Like the mayfly, Diaby emerged, showed us all brief glimpses of beauty, laid the seeds for the next season, and disappeared.
Diaby re-emerged from his nymph stage as a sub in Arsenal’s 6-3 win over Liverpool in the League Cup the next season. Wenger was protective of his precociously talented young midfielder and mostly played him as a substitute in cup matches as he recovered from Smith’s tackle. Still, Diaby won a starting berth in the League Cup final against Chelsea — his first chance to show Jose Mourinho why he chose Arsene and Arsenal over Chelsea.
Wenger started his youth team in that match, picking Denilson, Diaby, and Fabregas in the Arsenal midfield with Aliadiere and Walcott up front. Chelsea started an all-star cast in their midfield with Lampard in the creative role backed with essentially four defensive midfielders as Mourinho started Ballack, Essien, Makalele, and Diarra.
In fact, from front to back, that entire Chelsea team was packed with all stars: Cech, Carvalho, Bridge, Terry, Lampard, Makalele, Ballack, Essien, Diarra, Drogba, and Schevchenko in each case those player’s transfer fees cost more than the entire Arsenal team put together.
And Diaby bossed that midfield for the first 30 minutes. It was Diaby’s pass, splitting open the Chelsea back 8, which set Theo Walcott free for his first ever Arsenal goal:
Watch that little move Diaby does on Drogba to get free: just waits for Drogba to commit, giving time to Theo to get back into position, and then steps around his defender before releasing a simple pass to the runner. That was Diaby at his best.
But Diaby didn’t even last that whole game. He was replaced by Alexandr Hleb in the 69th minute, injured after putting his boot through John Terry’s head. Chelsea then went on to win the match, Mourinho held 6 fingers up to show how many trophies he’d won at Chelsea, presumably toward the owner but really for everyone to see, Diaby and Wenger included.
Abou’s thunderous effort against Liverpool at Anfield in the Champions League was undoubtedly the highlight of his month. He served a domestic suspension in the early part of April and, in a bid to raise his fitness levels, featured for the Reserve team. However he suffered a thigh injury before half-time of the second-string fixture and did not feature again. He will not play again this season.
“There are similarities,” said Wenger. “They are the same stature and the same size and have the similar style.”
It was a comparison that Diaby both embraced and withered from. Early in his career he admitted that Vieira was his favorite player at Arsenal. But what made Vieira great wasn’t the fact that he was tall, French, black, and good on the ball, it was the fire in Vieira’s heart. In his book Arsenal – The French Connection: How the Arsenal Became L’Arsenal, Fred Atkins¹ gives this telling quote from Diaby when he first came to Arsenal:
“He inspired me when I was a kid growing up. I would watch him playing for Arsenal, playing for France and dream of one day playing for Arsenal too. All the kids I grew up with did, we would watch the way they played football under Arsene Wenger with some great French players like Vieira, Henry and Petit.” But he later admitted: “I accept that I do need to be more aggressive and more physical. I can tackle, I think I can anyway… I would like to become a man like Vieira,” Diaby said, before adding: “I am not vocal like him. I am quiet. I need to work on that too.”
Diaby started 2009/10 going gangbusters. A small injury kept him out on opening day but after that he was a regular fixture. So much so that by January, Diaby had scored 6 goals and provided 2 assists in 18 starts and 1 sub. Wenger happily handed Diaby a new contract at the start of the year and the Frenchman happily signed the contract saying the he “loved it” at Arsenal.
That contract may be the most contentious contract Wenger ever handed to a player. Within weeks of signing, Diaby picked up a calf strain. Then he came back, played against Porto, and picked up a knee injury as Arsenal lost 2-1 — Wenger mused at the injury “it is not understandable. I don’t know how it worked.”. He finished that season with 40 total games for Arsenal, getting 7 goals, and 6 assists and earning a dream call up to the French national team for the World Cup in South Africa. It was a dream that turned into a nightmare.
I’m not going to recap everything that happened with the French National team at South Africa in 2010, Phillipe Auclair does a masterful job exposing the politics at play in his book Lonely at the Top. Suffice it to say that France’s World Cup was such a disaster that they didn’t win a single game and Diaby was arguably the lone bright spot on a French team more interested in publicly humiliating each other (and each others mothers) than playing football.
Diaby’s performance in the 0-0 draw against Uruguay earned him comparisons again to his hero Patrick Vieira but this time Diaby seemed less reluctant to take that mantle:
It’s very flattering for me because Vieira is a great player. He’s someone who has achieved a lot in football and it’s an honour to be compared to him.
I made a lot of effort to come back. I did a specific muscle strengthening program, and this helped me to play a lot of games this season. I persevered a lot, I had a lot of hard times and it wasn’t easy for me. But that helped me to be a lot stronger mentally.
I had no doubts about choosing [Arsenal]. I believed in myself and thought it would go well for me, and I think it pretty much has.
After that magical season, where he played 40 games for Arsenal and earned his call up to France, Diaby would only play 42 more matches for Arsenal, over 4 years.
He started the next season ok, playing 10 times for Arsenal and France from August to October. But then he picked up an ankle injury, then a calf strain, and another calf problem, and his season kept sputtering along, one small injury after another.
And then there was the match away to Newcastle. Diaby wasn’t in the best of shape but he started the game anyway and helped Arsenal race out to a 4-0 lead in the first half. As the second half kicked off, Newcastle midfielder Joey Barton, who is a thug in shin pads, started “putting himself about” which is English vernacular for kicking everyone in sight. Referee Phil Dowd allowed play to go on despite the fact that Barton was fouling everyone and had seemingly targeted Diaby for special treatment.
After one particularly awful challenge on Diaby, where Barton slid in on the Frenchman knee first, the Arsenal man dusted himself off, towered over Barton as he shrugged, and shoved him to the ground. Diaby earned a red card for retaliation.
After serving his suspension, Diaby finished the season and elected to have ankle surgery in the summer.
The next season, Diaby played just 5 games as he kept trying to get back in form. I was there at Anfield when Diaby made his briefest of comebacks. Coming on in the 52nd minute for Arteta, who had been horrifically knocked out by what looked like an NFL tackle by Jordan Henderson, Diaby could only last 28 minutes before limping off. The Arsenal crowd around me erupted into jeers and curses. They seemed unanimous in their fervent hope he would never play for Arsenal again.
But he went back into his nymph stage and re-emerged again for a brief stint in September, starting brightly for Arsenal and even getting called up for the French national team. He was named man of the match against title rivals Liverpool, only to pick up a thigh strain against Chelsea. A thigh strain which kept him out for three months.
When he returned in January, Wenger again spoke highly of his work ethic. Diaby played off an on for Arsenal, mostly off, throughout the late winter until he tore his ACL at Swansea on the 16th of March 2013.
Again, I was there when Diaby was taken off and just like the match at Anfield, the Arsenal fans spewed bile at him. This time the level of anger at Diaby had grown beyond the personal. This was no longer people simply angry at a player for being inept, as fans will often do, but rather Diaby had come to represent all of the fears and anger that fans felt at the club and the manager.
Diaby was bought during the austerity years. Wenger paid a mere £2m when similar players like Michael Essien were going for £20m. Wenger also brought him in as part of his youth revolution, intending to pair him with Fabregas in midfield with Walcott and van Persie up front. And given the fact that Diaby was clearly a huge talent, coupled with Wenger’s grand plan to bide time for Arsenal while the club paid down the stadium debt, Wenger gambled time and again that his initial investment would pay off.
It never did and yesterday Arsenal announced that they were opting not to renew Diaby’s contract after nearly 10 years at the club. Those fans at Anfield and Swansea got their wish and with him no longer around will need to turn to another bug to squash when their bile boils up from within.
But what makes me laugh is that there is still a chance that Abou Diaby, Ephemeroptera Podosfairistí̱s – the footballing mayfly, may rise again. He is after all, practicing at London Colney and looking for a club. I wouldn’t bet against him making a surprise reappearance next spring.
¹Thanks to Les Crang for his research help finding me quotes from this book.
Last summer Arsenal fans were clamoring for Arsene Wenger to sign a new striker. Both Radamel Falcao and Mario Balotelli were on the market and Arsenal supporters were keen to bring either player to Arsenal. Ever the iconoclast, Wenger rejected both and instead took Danny Welbeck from Man U for £16m. Many Arsenal fans were bitterly disappointed at the signing, feeling like Louis van Gaal had gotten one over on them by selling them Welbeck and using the money to buy Falcao. But in the end, it was the right choice by Wenger as Welbeck had the better season of the three players by miles.
United sold Welbeck to Arsenal for a mere £16m and used that money to offset Falcao’s £24m loan fee and salary. £16m is cheap for an English international and especially cheap for a forward aged just 24 years. Welbeck’s progress this season, featuring heavily for the English national team and for FA Cup winners Arsenal, has already increased his value according to CIES Football Observatory, a group who regularly monitor and assess player’s transfer values.
Even using Welbeck’s fee to offset Falcao’s wages (he makes over a million pounds a month), United spent £8m on a player for a one year loan. They will never see that £8m again. Meanwhile, Arsenal spent £16m plus another £4m in wages but got back a player who is now worth upwards of £26m. Amidst all this, Liverpool took a flyer on Mario Balotelli spending £16m on the transfer fee and another £6m on salary. For those football accountants out there, Arsenal earned +£6m, Man U spent -£8m, and Liverpool flushed -£22m down the bog on Balotelli.
And looking at each player’s total contributions to their team, Balotelli is the biggest bust since Fernando Torres:
Shots on goal
Aerial Duels Won
I looked at total numbers rather than per90 or per match because the players weren’t paid on a per90 basis nor were their transfer fees prorated by the minutes played. As you can see from the numbers above, Welbeck blows both Balotelli and Falcao out of the water. Still, a player might not score a lot of goals but could score important goals instead and for Falcao and Welbeck that is certainly the case.
Falcao assisted or scored in just 8 matches but won Man U 8 points in those matches. He assisted for the winner against West Ham, scored the winner against Everton, and scored the only goals in the draws to Villa and Stoke. Despite his relatively poor scoring record, Falcao scored important goals for United early in the season and without his contributions United probably would have finished with 62 points this season, that’s the same number of points as Liverpool who finished in 6th place. It could be argued that Falcao helped United secure a berth in the Champions League playoffs. If United complete the task and get into the Champions League, you will probably hear some United fans say that Falcao paid for himself.
Welbeck secured 13 points for Arsenal: he scored and assisted in the 3-0 win over Aston Villa, he scored a 91st minute equalizer against Hull, scored the only goal in the 1-0 win over Perfidious Albion, scored the winning goal against West Ham, and he assisted in the 2-1 win over Newcastle. Without those 13 points, Arsenal would have finished with 62 points this season. That’s the same number of points Liverpool earned finishing in 6th place. So, again, we could reasonably say that Welbeck helped his team win a place in the Champions League. That feat alone is worth around £40m.
Welbeck also scored the winner over Man U in the FA Cup, at Old Trafford. That winning goal propelled Arsenal on to win the FA Cup and while the prize money for that trophy is small the fact that Arsenal are now back-to-back FA Cup winners, and that they won it going through Old Trafford, is priceless. Welbeck’s contributions in the FA Cup and in the Premier League more than paid for his transfer fee and salary.
Balotelli scored four total goals this season and all of them were in competitions that Liverpool ended up losing. His goals against minnows like PFC Ludogoretz Razgrad, Besiktas, Swansea in the League Cup, and Tottenham Hotspur, gained Liverpool nothing. Balotelli did score the winner against Tottenham in League play and those three points were the difference between 6th and 7th. But even that doesn’t really matter since both 6th and 7th place teams sip from the poisoned chalice of the Europa League. Balotelli is the bust of the season and could even be the bust of the decade if Liverpool are unable to move him.
In fact, if you combine Balotelli and Falcao into one monstrously ugly forward with a horrible attitude problem their goals would have combined for just 11 points and most of their other statistical contributions still come up short on what Welbeck offered Arsenal in an injury-shortened season. With his value now more than his transfer fee and with the fact that he helped Arsenal win the FA Cup and a berth in the Champions League, Welbeck was yet another example of Wenger at his transfer best.