Arsenal’s midfield cupboard has been found bare more than once over the past 18 months, with Mathieu Flamini and Mikel Arteta’s tired legs forced into action on far too many occasions, but there is a sense that Arsene Wenger has finally played a bad hand well in the centre of the park.
Francis Coquelin cemented a first-team spot with assured performances after returning from a loan spell with Charlton 15 months ago, while Santi Cazorla flourished when dropping back from a more attacking position, before injury curtailed his progress.
January signing Mohamed Elneny, for whom Wenger admitted ‘there wasn’t a lot of competition’ after handing Basel £5m for his services, has been a neat-and-tidy pleasant surprise so far, with Arsenal losing just two of eight matches the Egyptian has started, one of those to Barcelona.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and to a greater extent Aaron Ramsey can both do a job further back without Arsenal losing much forward impetus, and plenty is expected of Polish central-midfielder Krystian Bielik, bought a year ago aged 17 for £2.7m.
With Leicester’s stunning season shining a spotlight on the Gunners’ underachievement like never before, Wenger may not be around to see the fruits of his midfield labours, but improvements have clearly been made.
It begs the question – where does this leave Jack Wilshere?
Like Daniel Sturridge, who is currently going through a far-from-spectacular fit patch, it’s very difficult to imagine Wilshere staying injury-free long enough to justify a place in a team targeting top honours.
There is no way to dress up the 24-year-old’s fitness record since breaking into the Arsenal first team in 2010/11 with 49 showings.
No appearances were made the following season, nor yet this season. During the three terms in between Wilshere averaged 16 Premier League starts per campaign. Over the past five years combined that drops to less than ten.
Little wonder Wenger felt Arsenal’s midfield needed long, medium and short-term reinforcement. Wilshere may be a gifted player who provides a rare platform between deep midfield and attack, but if he can’t get on the pitch he can’t do anything.
Hearts will break all round, but it may be past time for the Stevenage boy to ditch the Emirates for a place where long injury lay-offs are okay, as long as he looks great when he does play. West Ham springs to mind. They hate Tottenham as well.
Wilshere is due back in action for Arsenal Under-21s against Newcastle after seven months out with a broken leg and will be hopeful of gatecrashing England’s European Championship squad, but with Roy Hodgson better stocked than ever in midfield his first-team hopes seem slight.