Tag Archives: Wilshere


Footballistically speaking: Dr. Jekyll off the pitch, Mr. Hyde on it

I used to play basketball with this guy named, well, let’s call him Joe. Off the field, Joe was a nice guy. When we were sitting on the bench waiting to get back into the game, he would talk to me about my family or my love life and was variously insightful, funny, and charming — he never failed to make me laugh when I needed it. After the games I would go to his house for parties and drank many beers with Joe and again I never saw a single raised voice or even an angry moment from Joe.

But in the game, Joe wasn’t Joe. Joe was a cheater and a liar: every call had to go his way, even the ones that were wrong. Whenever Joe played, the game devolved into a screaming match over some perceived foul that Joe called or wanted called. Joe was also overly physical and played dangerously and with little care for the safety of his fellow players: if you tried to box him out on a rebound he would climb over your back, foul you to get the rebound, and then swing his elbows to clear out space. Joe was, to be blunt, a fucking asshole.

At first it was funny and I laughed it off. He wasn’t always some crazy rage-beast and so I took the good Joe, the non-ball playing Joe, to be his real personality. But that rage was always bubbling under the surface and it could erupt at any moment. Eventually, that sports Joe erupted into his real life. Without getting into too many details, Joe was caught stealing money, lost his job, lost his wife and now, from what I hear because I don’t play basketball anymore, he’s still the same old Joe.

I’ve been playing sports my whole life and I’ve seen a lot of Joes – these guys who are sweet and friendly off the field and a terrible menace on the field – and a few years back I came up with a theory: if you ever want to get to really know someone, play sports with them. Sports is the kind of heated, competitive environment where people make instinctual decisions without the benefit of a cold shower and a fortnight’s thinking. If Joe’s instinctual decision is to snap into a harsh tackle whenever he loses the ball, that’s how he will act when the chips are down in real life too.

I was doing some research on Arsène Wenger’s first North London derby a few weeks back and I came across a quote from Wenger which confirmed my theory. When Wenger took over Arsenal, the players were well known for what the British press call “anti-social behaviour”. Merson and Adams were confirmed alcoholics which seems to be the only disease that is a crime in England.

On the field, Arsenal had Ian Wright who had a reputation as a bad-boy with the officials. And whether they were deserved or not, Arsenal were second in the League in bookings. To this very day Arsène is abused for the number of red cards his teams gather¹.


And so, in that context, Arsène was asked what he thought of the personality of his team and he responded in his usual insightful way:

The real revelation of a player’s character is not in his social life but how he plays. In social life I can hide my real personality, but when I’m playing, I show my real self because it’s important to win. You see the real character of a player not off the field but on it.²

Jack Wilshere continues this tradition of supposed bad-boys off the field. His sins so far are that he’s a (not so) secret smoker, though I am starting to wonder if he isn’t also a secret gluten eater. And we all know that gluten is the devil.

But on the field, Wilshere is just a fiery midfielder who stands up to bullies, who is creative, and who can pick apart a team with a mazy dribble or incisive pass. He’s not afraid to tackle a player and he will even stand up to a Jonas Olsen who is, like, 17 times his size.

Meanwhile, Cesc Fabregas can give all the interviews he wants to about how much he respects Arsenal and what Arsène has done for his career, but in the Chelsea v. Arsenal match, Cesc let his true feelings be known: here he is tackling Welbeck from behind, after the whistle had blown. It was a dirty, chippy, little play from the former Arsenal captain and I think a bit of insight into his true personality.

Cesc fouling

We all have our outward social facade that we would like everyone to believe is our true self. And we all hide bits of our personality from the world, only showing the nasty stuff to the ones we love (oh how they love us that they put up with our nasty bits). But if you really want to get to know someone, to break through that thin exterior shell, just play football with them. And the first time they slide tackle you, studs up, from behind, after the whistle has blown, you’ll know… this guy? He’s an asshole.


¹Arsenal have three red cards already this season (2013/2014) all in Champions League play, just in case you hadn’t heard in, ohh… the last 10 minutes or so.
²Beauty is any kind of goal against Spurs, says Wenger - David Lacey, The Guardian, November 23rd 1996

Welbeck celebrates Switzerland goal with Arsenal teammates

Welbeck snubs Rooney, embraces Arsenal teammates

There was a brilliant moment in the second half of England’s 2-0 win over Switzerland where Raheem Sterling played in a long cross to Rooney, it was the wrong ball and Johan Djourou should have dealt with it easily, but the Swiss defender misjudged the header, Rooney pounced, headed the ball into the 18 yard box, and sprinted to catch up to what amounted to a pass to himself. Yet, in a moment that Rooney has probably never experienced before in his life, Danny Welbeck swept in from the right side, beat Wayne Rooney to the ball, and took the shot. Djourou had recovered enough by then to get in a block and as Welbeck and Djourou picked themselves up off the ground Welbeck slapped Djourou on the back, one Arsenal man to another, and congratulated him on the tackle.

That passage of play made me smile. First, there was Sterling’s pass. Welbeck made a great run to the right of Sterling, which is where he should have played the ball, but instead he clipped a terrible pass to Rooney who was covered by two men. Djourou, the former Arsenal man, did what Djourou did when he was at Arsenal; make a hash of a simple ball. Then Rooney did what he always does and seized on the opportunity. But in swept Welbeck, belly full but hungry, nipped the ball from an exasperated Rooney and took a shot. Rooney was credited with a key pass (would he have gotten an assist if he shot it himself and scored?) but Welbeck never thanked Rooney for the pass. It was understood between the two, that ball wasn’t meant for him.

Minutes earlier, Welbeck opened the scoring when Sterling put in a decent ball and found Welbeck’s blistering run at the far post. The Arsenal forward spurned Rooney and Sterling and instead ran over to where his new teammates were warming up on the sideline. Choosing to celebrate with Calum Chambers and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain instead of former teammate Wayne Rooney. Symbolically, Welbeck was turning his back on familiarity and embracing the unknown, opportunity.

Welbeck celebrates Switzerland goal with Arsenal teammates

At Arsenal, Welbeck is going to get that opportunity because that is what Arsene Wenger does: he gives chances to young men who show the right attitude.

Fortunately, throughout his career, Welbeck has consistently shown the proper attitude. Not blessed with the natural talent of a player like Rooney, Welbeck couldn’t afford to take it easy at training sessions. Instead he had to impress the boss every week with his hard work and willingness to play any role that his manager asked of him. Fergie spoke glowingly of his attitude and future two years ago saying,

Last year he had 12 goals, this year he’s only got two, so that’s a big drop, but that drop doesn’t concern us because he still applies himself really well and still looks to score, still looks to get a chance and with that kind of courage he will eventually become a regular goalscorer.

Maybe he doesn’t appreciate us moving him around in various positions and we’ve maybe overused that because he is young, but his value to the club is there because I know he can do a job for me in any of those positions. It’s a fantastic asset when you have a player who is as adaptable as that. But I think he will find his role through the middle once he gets that maturity and gets into a more consistent way of scoring.

His hard work and adaptability has paid off in the international arena as well. At 23 years old Welbeck already has 28 caps for England playing in a variety of positions. But his best position is clearly through the middle. He is the modern interpretation of a traditional British number 9. If you watch the Switzerland highlights again (link at the top of the page) you can see everything that Naveen wrote about in his last two pieces: Welbeck is a big athletic fellow, able to drop deep, collect the ball, beat a marker (tbf it was only Behrami) and play his teammates in¹. The highlights also show that he is blessed with speed and a desire to get in behind the defense and work the defenders.

Wenger is big on giving players opportunity: he is giving a chance to Wilshere, he is giving a chance to Ramsey, to Ox, to Welbeck, to Gnabry, and he is giving a chance to Calum Chambers. It doesn’t always work out but Cesc Fabregas wouldn’t have the career in football he has if Wenger didn’t take a chance on him as a 16 year old. All Wenger asks in return is that they repay his faith with a little of their own, the one lesson Cesc didn’t learn²

Fabregas debate

Even better, with Giroud out and Arsenal needing a player who can be the focal point of the attack Welbeck is going to get his chances in his preferred position. And playing with guys like Özil, Ramsey, and Sanchez, players who know where to deliver the caviar, there are going to be ample spoonfuls for Welbeck to gobble up.

If he can continue to apply himself, if he can turn his back on familiarity and embrace the unknown, Wenger will give him the chances to prove himself. And at just £16m I suspect that Welbeck will not only score more goals than Falcao but also be the signing of the season.


¹Welbeck’s pass to Sterling has been criticized as being behind the player but what I saw was Sterling making too eager a run. Midfielders often do that when they aren’t used to scoring, they run at or near full tilt when there is space in the 18 yard box. Instead, Sterling needed to check his run a bit to create time and space for the forward to get him the ball.
²Cesc was given his chance by Arsene and he worked hard to become the best player he could be. I enjoyed watching Cesc as an Arsenal player and while he was using Arsenal as a stepping stone, he was rewarded with wealthy contracts and with a playing career which would take him back to his dream job at Barcelona and win him 6 trophies in 3 years. That was then, this is now: now Fabregas is a Chelsea player, I wish him nothing but the worst of luck. This debate over whether Arsenal should have bought Cesc is over for me.


Would the non-divisive Arsenal player please stand up?

We often hear about how a certain player is divisive. His relative talents left in the trash heap of history and his relative faults brought out and polished for some blogger to earn a few bucks off clicks. But the truth is that I can’t think of a single player at Arsenal who doesn’t divide opinion right now. Even venerated players like Thierry Henry get put under the microscope and examined by Arsenal fans eager to find fault with the gods of the game.

Why? There’s not really one reason. With 60,000 Arsenal bloggers and twice as many people on twitter who want to make you aware of their opinion there is a rush to be the first with some “insight”. This often leads to hyperbolic criticism of players after one or two poor matches, or even a poor first half. But there are also just some people who are always going to be harshly critical (and harshly optimistic!) of everything and call it “being realistic” or folks who just want Arsenal to buy all the players at every other team. Whatever the reason, we all know that they are there and what they have to say but let’s look a little closer at some recent criticisms.

Alexis Sanchez

Removed at half-time against Everton and already some folks are questioning whether he was worth the money Arsenal paid for him. Wenger linked his current fitness levels to his confidence but I’m not entirely convinced it was a fitness issue. Against Everton, Alexis made runs which had the local commentators gushing but Arsenal struggled to get him the ball: he only received 17 total passes in 45 minutes and only one pass in the 18 yard box, on the edge of the box, hardly a dangerous position.

Meanwhile, Giroud’s first touch was a big diagonal placed a yard away from goal and from there almost all of his passes received were in and around the box. He received just 18 passes himself, hardly setting the world on fire.

I suspect that more than lack of fitness was a lack of understanding. Arsenal and Alexis seem just a step off at the moment. When Ramsey expects Alexis to zig, he zags. While Giroud has two seasons at Arsenal and his movements are now predictable to his teammates. I’m not at all worried about Alexis Sanchez and his ability to fit in at Arsenal. He’s a fantastic footballer, with a great first touch, the ability to take on defenders, and who will shine once he learns his teammates.


It doesn’t get much more divisive than opinion on the big Frenchman. He’s wasteful. His first shot against Everton should have been a goal. Sometimes seems more comfortable trying a cutsey little flick pass than a basic 5 yard square ball. Unable to face up to an opponent and take him on.

But he’s also big and strong and willing to put in a shift against meaty defenders as Arsenal’s version of Kevin Cyril Davies and yet still score 16-20 goals in a season. Industrious player who can pluck a ball out of the sky with his foot like it’s cotton candy, who wins headers in the middle of the park, and who holds the ball up so well that he has to be credited at least partially for Ramsey’s scoring renaissance.


Before last season was completely written off by many Arsenal fans. The same fans who are writing off Wilshere now. Some of the criticism was warranted, he had an annoying tendency to hold on to the ball too much and that resulted in numerous turnovers.

But his workrate and the fact that he never shied away from the ball saved him. He’s Arsenal’s leading passer, leading tackler, and now he’s a goal scoring midfielder who wins games with his late runs in the box. Cited by Wenger as the main reason why Arsenal didn’t buy Cesc Fabregas.


This 22 year old central midfielder is Arsenal’s new enfant terrible and judging by the heap of articles in the British press this morning, his young career is over. Has an annoying habit of holding on to the ball too much and trying to dribble too much. Often caught in possession and targeted by opposition midfielders for tackles (leads Arsenal in fouls drawn, and those are just the ones the officials call). He was even tackled (harshly, I thought) by Thierry Henry in the friendly against the Red Bulls. Perhaps Henry was trying to say “son, you dribble too much, pass the ball.”

But he’s only 22 years old and he’s had a career plagued with injuries. Hasn’t started more than 20 League games for Arsenal since his breakout season, 2010/2011 — when he was just 19 years old. He has to learn to pass and move rather than trying to dribble the entire opposition team. And defensively he needs to learn better positioning and tackling. The talent is there, though, and like Ramsey before him I expect Wilshere to shine this season.

Podolski, Özil, Sanogo, Arteta… I could keep going

You already know the criticisms of these players. Podolski is lazy, Özil is nicking a living, Sanogo is not Mario Ballotelli, Arteta isn’t beast, etc. But rather than break down every player let’s end with some positives.

Per Mertesacker: who has anything bad to say about Per? A gentle giant, makes Arsenal’s set play defense better simply with his presence. Organizes the defense and a natural leader on the pitch.

Laurent Koscielny: (to the tune of Crazy by Willie Nelson) I’m crazy… I’m crazy for Laurent Koscielny… I’m crazy for Laurent’s kung fu. I knew, Koscielny won’t leave me like van Persie. Or Cashley, who left me for somebody blue. Worry? Why do I let myself worry? Wondering, what we would do without you? I’m crazy… for thinking that red card could hold you. I’m crazy… for crying. I’m crazy for buying. I’m crazy for loving you. (special thanks to Brian from 11 Cannons for collaborating on this).

Calum Chambers: I feel sad for Chambers. Koscielny and Mertesacker are both going to be healthy soon and he’s going to be put back on the bench and left to fight his way back into first team contention either as a center back, a right back, or in his eventual position as defensive midfielder. He’s made a few mistakes but the fact that he’s been universally praised by all across England, with many hoping for an England call-up, is as positive a review as possible for a 19 year old. Really, just perfect. The same way that everyone praised Jack Wilshere when he was 19 and begged him to be selected for the national team. Oh wait…

Have your say below. Are there players beyond reproach for you? Ones you feel you need to defend?