Tag Archives: Wilshere

Wenger

Wherefore the English Core

At the onset of the season I penned a piece about how Arsène Wenger was building Arsenal’s “British Core”. Wenger had added Calum Chambers and Danny Welbeck to an exciting group of established English players like Jack Wilshere, Theo Walcott, Kieran Gibbs, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain¹, and the Frenchman was bullish about the project bragging that he could see five Arsenal players forming the core of the English national team in the future. But here we are 3/4 of the way through the season and whether it’s injury or form, I have to admit that I can’t see any of these players making up the core of the English national team, yet. So, what happened?

The most obvious thing that happened this year is increased competition for places. Calum Chambers is a exciting young talent who can play as a fullback, center back, or defensive midfielder but has yet to really shine in any of those roles when given the chance. Chambers got handed the starting role in right back when Debuchy went down injured but quickly lost his starting spot to Hector Bellerin. The reason is simple: both Bellerin and Chambers have a tendency to get too far forward and to make defensive errors but Bellerin’s superior foot speed allows him to recover more quickly. And Bellerin is a converted winger, his class shows when he has the ball in attack. Chambers is a fine player, but Bellerin is simply superior.

Chambers also suffers a similar fate in center back and in the defensive midfield role. Mertesacker, one of the captains of the team, is going to start over Chambers at center back whenever the big German is healthy. And as for defensive midfield, Chambers got one start there and it was pretty disastrous. I would say that Coquelin gets the nod there. So, in a sense, the “problem” with Chambers is that he is a jack of all trades, yet master of none.

Danny Welbeck’s struggle to get into the starting lineup at Arsenal is very different. When Wenger made his “English core” remark, Welbz had just scored a brace for England against Slovenia. He was starting for Arsenal in his favored central role up front and things were looking good for the Englishman. But then he went down injured and Arsenal got Olivier Giroud back. Giroud has been playing well ever since and has kept Welbeck sidelined or shunted off to the wings where he’s less effective. Giroud has been in such fine form that I think most folks were surprised when Arsene handed the start to Danny Welbeck in the FA Cup quarter final against Man U. But Welbeck repaid Arsene for that chance and scored the winner with an industrious and well taken goal.

Welbeck, in many ways, symbolizes both the problem and the solution for these English players. The problem is that there is increased competition for places at Arsenal. There is nothing wrong with this, at all. Giroud may be in better form than Welbeck but what Welbeck needs to do is exactly what he did on Monday night against his former team: work his buns off and score goals. If he does that, there is no doubt that he will eventually win the starting spot from Giroud.

The other thing that Welbeck symbolizes is youth. Welbeck is 24, Giroud 28. If Welbeck takes a long-term view of his career, he will see that within 1-2 years he should be entering his prime, have more experience, and be starting regularly over Giroud. Now, I know that in our instant gratification society this seems an impossible ask but that is just the reality he is faced with.

Gibbs as well is facing rather stiff competition from Nacho Monreal. Monreal isn’t the most exciting player, he runs a bit like a duck, but Monreal is a model professional and a good example for his younger, English, counterpart, Gibbs. Monreal and Gibbs have essentially split the left back duties this season but Gibbs has youth on his side, Monreal is 29. If Gibbs just keeps plugging away and taking his chances when they come to him, he will surely get the starting role at Arsenal.

For some of the other English players, the story is a bit different. I’m talking specifically about Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott. Wenger bought Özil and Alexis for a combined £70m and both of those players bring an undeniable quality to the team and both of those players start in the role that Wilshere and Walcott fancy.

Let’s start with Walcott. All the signs were pointing to Walcott having a breakout season last year. And it was shaping up to be as well, but then he went down injured. It was yet another injury in a career which is marked by his time spent in the treatment room. That injury set his career back again and allowed for other players to come in and take his starting spot. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has better close control (dribbling) and similar speed. Ox also defends better than Walcott. And, as if that all wasn’t bad enough, Wenger bought Alexis this summer. Alexis does all those things better even than Ox and the only reason he hasn’t started much on the right is that Wenger prefers him on the left where he can cut in on his right foot.

But worse for Walcott is that Arsenal have adopted an all out pressing style. This doesn’t suit his game. He is young, and he could pick this habit up. In other words, he could learn to play more like Alexis. But until he does, I can’t see him getting many looks in.

The incredible thing is that Theo Walcott is only 25 years old and his next 4 years will probably be the best of his career (if he can avoid injury). I could see Arsenal selling him this summer because he doesn’t fit our style of play and have him go to some place like West Ham where they play the type of compact, long-ball that does suit him, and where he wouldn’t have to play the type of pressing game that he would at Arsenal³, and he could score 20 goals a season. That would leave many fans wondering “why didn’t Arsene get the best out of him” and “how come we didn’t adopt a playing style that suited him” or “why doesn’t Arsenal buy him back???”

See, this is the complicated thing about Wilshere and Walcott. It’s not always down to whether they are good players or not, they are both clearly good players. Most of the time, it’s actually down to whether the players fit your system or whether you can integrate their talents into your system. And like Walcott, I also worry about Wilshere.

Wilshere wears the number 10 and he is an exciting number 10 style English player. He is very direct, he likes to attack defenders square up, and he’s got great close control so he often gets by the defender. But the problem is that Arsenal have a veritable cornucopia of these types of players. Cazorla and Ozil both play ahead of Wilshere in the central attacking midfield role.

The other problem is that Jack hasn’t proved himself adaptable. He nominally plays a defensive midfield role for England but having watched him now for several years, he lacks the passing range and surety needed for a defensive midfielder. And despite his “tigerish” reputation, he is a terrible tackler, and doesn’t pay attention to his defensive duties at times, rather looking to start the attack.

I’d like to think that there is more to come from Wilshere. His career, like Walcott, has been cut short by injury². So, there is the hope that he will come back healthy and get a run of games. He’s also only 23 years old. Players get better at passing with age. If anyone can teach a player how to pass it’s Arsene Wenger and by the time Wilshere is 27 years old, I suspect he will be calmer and more reliable with his passing.

But even if he comes back healthy and even if he works tirelessly developing his game, he still faces stiff competition in a crowded midfield at Arsenal and might be tempted to take his game somewhere else.

Some of you will read what I’ve written and say that I’m worrying about an “implosion” of the English Core at Arsenal. Far from it. I see that the English core is being challenged and that the challenge is world class. Having players like Özil and Alexis on your team should make the others better, not worse.

What I’m suggesting then, is that this project is going to take a little more time than I think many fans (myself included) wanted or expected. I think a lot of people in England expect that a 20 year old player who has a few good games is going to be the next big name, but that’s not how this works. It takes time and hard work.

Chambers isn’t a bad player, he just needs to nail down where he wants to play. Gibbs isn’t a bad player, he just has an equal challenging him. Welbeck isn’t a bad player, he just needs to keep working hard and taking his chances when they are given to him. And Wilshere and Walcott face the most direct challenge and need to figure out where they fit at Arsenal, if they want to stay.

But all of these are young players, who have at least another World Cup in front of them. If they can rise to the challenge, Arsenal could still form the core of the English national team. Of a damn good English national team, I might add.

Qq

¹This isn’t meant to discount Chuba Akpom, Carl Jenkinson or other exciting academy players but rather at the time they weren’t really mentioned as part of an Arsenal core.
²It is absurd listening to Mourinho moan about how Hazard is kicked when Jack Wilshere has had his ankles routinely destroyed by every team on the planet for the last 4 years.
³Contrary to popular belief West Ham do not force their players to play much actual defense. They rely mainly on team shape to defend spaces and are less interested in tackling the ball away, intercepting, and other hallmarks of defensive play.

wilshere-Ox

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.

wilshere-Ox

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.

Qq

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.

Qq

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.