‘Good on Bournemouth.’
Those three words were Matt Stead’s assessment of Bournemouth’s improvement from last season as he compared the Premier League table from this time last year. Aside from Chelsea, theirs is the most striking improvement – from 18th one year to tenth the next. This weekend was significant because it was the first time the Cherries had ended a Premier League programme in the top half. They are in danger of becoming established.
The bizarre thing about Bournemouth’s improvement is that statistically, there is basically no difference between the Bournemouth of 2015/16 and the Bournemouth of 2016/17 – they are taking roughly the same number of shots and enjoying roughly the same possession. If anything, on paper they look defensively worse – tackling less, intercepting less, and thus allowing more shots. Ostensibly, little has changed; despite a not-inconsiderable summer outlay approaching £30m, the players at 1-9 in their ‘minutes played’ table are survivors from last season.
Which takes us neatly to the player at No. 10 on that ‘minutes played’ list and No. 10 in a positional sense, a player whose statistics suggest he could not possibly have had an impact on Bournemouth’s season. WhoScored would have you believe he has been the Cherries’ 12th-best player in this improved campaign, which perfectly illustrates why statistics should be taken – like all potentially addictive substances – with caution. No goals, no assists. He sounds like a pretty sh*t No. 10.
Or he does until you consider three things. The first is the evidence of your own eyes, and you really do need to watch more than six minutes of Match of the Day highlights to appreciate Wilshere’s influence at Bournemouth, to see the way that his presence further up the pitch allows two of Harry Arter, Andrew Surman and Dan Gosling to sit or surge from deep, with the knowledge that he has the touch to either receive and look after the ball or the intelligence to drag players away and make space. Junior Stanislas is finally thriving at least partly because Wilshere instinctively interchanges and interacts with his wide men; he can make good players look great.
Finally, the body is now almost as willing as the brain and the feet.
Against Stoke, Wilshere had his finest game in a Bournemouth shirt; he was instrumental in keeping the ball moving and finding space in a cramped midfield, presumably making Joe Allen wish he was still operating further up the pitch for his new club. Charlie Adam needs no help to look sluggish but Wilshere was kind enough to offer assistance anyway.
Jack Wilshere MOTM VS Stoke:
84% passing accuracy
4 chances created
2 through balls
— AFC Stat (@AFCStat) November 19, 2016
There were still no goals – though he hit the woodwork for an astonishing fourth time in a Bournemouth shirt – and still no assists despite creating four chances for his teammates. And that’s the second measure of Wilshere’s impact, in the statistics behind the statistics.
In a week when Jamie Carragher has suggested that Juan Mata should be mentioned in the same breath as Eden Hazard, it’s worth noting that Wilshere plays more key passes per 90 minutes (2.4) than either Mata or Hazard (both 2.2). That statistic alone does not prove that Wilshere is in their class, but neither does the ‘no goals, no assists’ statistic prove that the on-loan Arsenal midfielder is a million miles away from the class required at a top-six club. The truth clearly lies somewhere in between.
Thirdly, the impact of a 34-cap England midfielder with extensive Champions League experience joining a small, provincial club cannot be underestimated. Bournemouth fans could never have envisaged signing a player of Wilshere’s class, even on a temporary basis, while the players have openly gushed about training and playing with a man who has learned from one of the greatest managers in the history of the game. It sounds like a horrendous, patronising cliche but Wilshere has clearly lifted a club that can probably start planning a Premier League future beyond this season with diminishing fear.
This weekend Bournemouth play Arsenal and Wilshere will watch from the sidelines with presumably mixed emotions. The only thing he will be clear about is that he made the right decision to turn down Crystal Palace for a deal that has done both him and Eddie Howe a world of good.