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Aaron Ramsey's rise to arguably the Premier League's stand-out performer this season has been a long time coming. It has been five years since the Wales international joined Arsenal and only now is he really becoming an integral member of the side, his progress scuppered by the horror injury he suffered at Stoke back in Feburary 2010.
Teammate Jack Wilshere, who knows all about having his development interrupted by injury, would of course never begrudge Ramsey his moment in the limelight, but Ramsey's prominence this season, whilst shooting the Gunners to the Premier League's summit, has also served to highlight the continued flaws in Wilshere's game. The Englishman has been one of very few below-par players at the Emirates this season, but one shouldn't go jumping to conclusions all too quickly.
With hindsight, Wilshere probably almost broke into the first team too early for his own good, and he certainly broke into the England team too soon. When returning from injury, he is rushed back to action for both club and country, and given the astounding natural ability he has shown in the past, he is unfairly expected to be churning out that level of performance immediately. Given the regularity with which he picks up injuries, there is a lack of consistency to his playing time, so inconsistencies in his form are hardly surprising. But a player is always going to be faced with undue pressure when he's supposed to be England's 'next big thing', and that pressure is weighing mightily heavy on Wilshere's shoulders.
Arsene Wenger's recent comments might not have helped matters: "He has not a lot to learn - he understands the game, can play anywhere, defensive midfield, central midfield. He is a complete player." With his words the Frenchman wanted to relieve the youngster of some pressure to perform, but saying he is only lacking match fitness will increase expectation that he will be back to his best sooner rather than later.
But Wenger isn't wrong. Wilshere is a fantastic footballer, and might even be able to hold off the challenge of Aaron Ramsey for a first-team spot when back to his best. But with Ramsey, Mesut Özil and Mathieu Flamini holding down the central midfield spots, Wilshere has been forced to chop and change position, making two of his five starts this season in an unfamiliar wide-left position.
Not a winger, Wilshere's inclination is to come infield from a wider starting position but, playing on the left, doing so leaves him on his weaker right foot, or relying on the outside of his left boot to advance the play. Thus, often he will look back infield for Ramsey and co. for possession to be recycled. Despite playing in a more advanced wide role, he is making fewer key passes this season than he was last (1.4 per game compared to 1.9) and completing fewer successful dribbles (1.2 per game compared to 2.2). With out-and-out winger Theo Walcott on the other flank, there can be a distinct lack of balance to the Arsenal team, and yet it has been working so far. Since the loss to Aston Villa on the opening day of the season, the Gunners have won seven games in a row in all competitions and are now being discussed as potential title challengers.
But it is as yet unclear as to where Wilshere is best suited. Ramsey arguably does the most work in this Arsenal team; no player has made more tackles than him in the whole top flight (26), while only Olivier Giroud (26) has had more shots (12). And Özil, with three assists in two appearances since joining, is going to take some displacing in the number 10 position that Wilshere has previously failed to hold down. Mikel Arteta and Santi Cazorla are yet to return fully from injury, not to mention Lukas Podolski and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, so Wilshere will need to gain that extra 10-20% fitness that Wenger says he is still lacking, and soon.
He was substituted against Stoke with the worst rating (6.77) of any Arsenal midfielder or attacker, and with a pass success rate to match (86%). With two key passes and one shot, he was of some danger doing forwards, but without a single tackle, interception, clearance or block he was by some way the least defensively helpful player on the pitch. Of course, that is not what he is there for, but with the ball there is certainly room for improvement as there will soon be plenty of competition and other players to better. In this current Arsenal side and with yet more players that soon enough will once again be at Wenger's disposal, Wilshere's current form will almost certainly be insufficient to warrant a place in the starting XI.
Alistair Tweedale - follow him on Twitter here
All statistics courtesy of WhoScored.com, where you can find yet more stats, including live in-game data and unique player and team ratings.
Has anyone ever seen a picture of Jack Wilshere without his tongue hanging out?- cookie_monster