“I believe he will end up a central midfielder, just off the striker in the Bergkamp role. He can find the final ball and can also score goals.”
This was the assessment of a 16-year-old Jack Wilshere by Arsene Wenger back in 2008, when the midfielder was ready to make his first-team Arsenal debut.
Wilshere was considered to have the world at his feet – a future Arsenal captain, the focal point of a Gunners team that would become serious Premier League title challengers again and the saviour the England national side needed if they were to end their going on 50-year wait to win the World Cup.
What has followed in the six years since has been little of the sort. Arsenal have finished no higher than third in the top flight, Wilshere was a starting substitute at this summer’s World Cup and he is far from a certain starter in Wenger’s current first team when everyone is fit.
The goals and assists that Wenger previously spoke of have been in short supply too. Granted, he has just enjoyed his most productive season of five goals and four assists, but much more would have been expected.
In his six seasons in total, Wilshere has scored just five times in the Premier League and registered only 13 assists. For those of you with bad maths, he has played a key role in an average of three league goals a season. Arsenal have scored 437 goals in this timeframe.
So where has it gone wrong for the golden boy? Injuries? Off-the-field antics? Too much burden too soon?
None of these elements have helped, but the changing nature of football, and in particular the changing demands of a midfield player, has to take a large portion of the blame too.
The growing use of 4-2-3-1 doesn’t really include a central midfielder of his niche.
There are five different types of central midfielder that are widely utilised. The enforcer with the sole job of winning back possession (think Claude Makelele), the water carrier with the job of starting and pacing attacks from deep positions (Mikel Arteta, Yohan Cabaye), the general who does a bit of everything (Steven Gerrard, Roy Keane), the box-to-boxer who is a workhorse that has three lungs according to Jamie Redknapp (Yaya Toure, Jordan Henderson) and the playmaker that needs no explanation (Mesut Ozil).
Wilshere fits none of these directly, with a hand in three or four of the different pots.
When he tried to be the general against Liverpool and Manchester City, Wilshere only made a bad situation worse; he can be influential in starting attacks, but doesn’t have the discipline or the positional awareness to be a water carrier and he doesn’t run beyond his strikers enough to be a box-to-boxer, with his preference being the man to drift towards the ball and supply the passes.
Although the figures already mentioned conclude that his contribution is severely lacking if he is to be a number 10.
He is not the only player in the modern day struggling to identify where exactly he fits in.
Mousa Dembele has had a very stale 12 months at Tottenham and has many of the same attributes as Wilshere. A strong dribbler, but not quite creative enough and a bit of a liability when starting in a deeper position, primarily through a tendency to give the ball away.
Leon Osman is another that doesn’t have an obvious category, nor does Tom Cleverley.
Wilshere’s enthusiasm can drive Arsenal on when their tempo is too passive, but given Aaron Ramsey’s impact last season, he simply can’t be left out and the Welshman’s position is the only one where he could realistically be fielded centrally.
So what is the solution?
Although not exactly the same sort of player, Wilshere’s conundrum is not totally dissimilar to that of Andres Iniesta at Barcelona and especially his role in the Spanish national team.
The result for Iniesta is that because he is too good to drop, he has been regularly shunted out to the left, where there is more room for him to dribble and he can wander inside to further overload the central area.
Wilshere did start a few games wide in the last campaign when on the comeback trail from injury and this allows him to focus more on the technical side of his game, while circling around the likes of Ozil to link up in the final third, in a similar manner to Iniesta.
This also gives him some additional forward licence to try his tricks and dummies, where he doesn’t need to worry about being caught out of position as much.
It would seem strange to consider Wilshere as a wide player, most notably because of his lack of pace and reluctance to send balls into the box, but this may be where he belongs in the current age of football.
With Theo Walcott injured, there is potentially a vacancy here for the start of the season and more than most Wilshere will benefit from a run of games.
Should he get this, especially in a position further up the pitch, then we may finally get to see a Wilshere similar to that we thought we would six years ago.