Jack Wilshere and Arsenal: The impossible dream

Matt Stead

It remains one of the true mysteries of our existence. Was it Ian Holloway or David Brent who presented the idea of misfortune with the following line: “If I fell in a barrel of boobs, I’d come out sucking my thumb”?

Whether it was the eminently quotable parodic caricature of an authority figure or the bloke from The Office does not matter here, for said fate befell Jack Wilshere once more last weekend. Only instead of sucking his own thumb, the midfielder emerged from his own fun-filled barrel – a tussle with Harry Kane – clutching his leg, struggling with the pain, and thus ending his season.

Wilshere has made his staunch feelings regarding Tottenham rather clear in the recent past, and the White Hart Lane faithful took great pleasure in returning the favour on Saturday as he limped off the pitch. The Arsenal loanee could hardly avoid the chants as they echoed around north London. ‘It’s happened again,’ his arch-nemeses delightedly reminded him as he disappeared down the tunnel.

The innocuous nature of the tackle had betrayed the 25-year-old: if anything, he arrived late and with force, albeit a fair amount, on Kane. Few expected that to be the last sighting of Wilshere on a football pitch this season at the time, but confirmation arrived by Wednesday. A hairline fracture of the leg – the same injury that sidelined him for almost all of last season – ended his brief love affair with the south coast.

The report cards had already been filed by Saturday evening. “That move to Bournemouth was meant to reignite his career but I think it’s created more issues,” declared Alan Shearer. “It hasn’t gone well for him at all.”

On the face of it, the pundit perhaps had a point. Wilshere will end the campaign having made 27 appearances in black and red, with no goals and just two assists to show for it. He was brave enough to test the waters away from the Emirates, but appears to have tripped and landed face first before even clearing the shore.

The statistics are damning, but some context is needed. For Wilshere was expected to transition seamlessly from Arsenal’s possession-centric style to a role at Bournemouth, who have averaged just over half the ball per game (50.5%) this season. His best form for the Cherries also came from August until December, before Eddie Howe changed approach. Ryan Fraser’s introduction to the first team as a willing, direct and pacy ball-carrier now sees the midfield often bypassed. His reputation also forms a target for the opposition: only two Bournemouth players are fouled more often per game in the Premier League (1.8). The Dean Court faithful and those in charge still speak incredibly highly of him.

Yet, for some, his performances at Bournemouth were always an afterthought, a byproduct of something much more important. Wilshere did not personally seek to leave the Emirates to prove he was good enough; his quality has rarely ever been in question. He left in order to show that he was durable enough to cope with the demands of a full Premier League calendar. And therein lies the issue with the foundations supporting the house that Jack built: this latest injury, however unfortunate, is proof that Arsenal simply cannot rely upon him.

This September will mark nine years since the 25-year-old made his Premier League debut as a precocious but remarkably gifted teenager; potential is no longer a viable excuse. This is his eighth season of professional football, his 13th separate injury, and his 905th day – the equivalent of two years, five months and three weeks – on the sidelines through the failings of his own body. He has started 115 Premier League games throughout the whole of his career; he has missed 105 through injury, and that will become 110 by the end of the season.

His longest run of consecutive Premier League starts still stands at 18, set way back in April 2011. He has started more than eight consecutive games in the top flight on just two other occasions – once in 2010, and then in 2013. Those looking to build a team around him at this stage are doing so with tools made of blind hope and bricks made of ignorance.

Cue Arsenal, who are expected to open contract talks soon with the midfielder, whose deal with the club expires next summer. Keeping him at the club would be typical of the loyalty Arsene Wenger displays towards his players, but it would be a mistake.

There will be those who champion Wilshere’s cause to stay at the Emirates, and to do so would be understandable. If he recovers and enjoys a solid pre-season then he is precisely what the Arsenal midfield is lacking. But he has become an impossible Emirates dream. If you expect the summer to pass by without any injury complications, then you don’t know Jack.

To leave Arsenal last summer was a calculated risk, and it almost paid off. But just as Wilshere prepared to add the final ingredient in his experiment away from the club – a full, uninterrupted season – it blew up in his face yet again. Even in the raucous nature of his surroundings as he trudged off the pitch on Saturday, he must have experienced a moment of clarity. Excuse the poor choice of words, but a clean break would be best for everyone.


Matt Stead