Thursday, February 13, 2014

Where should Wilshere play? He's no defensive midfielder...


Where should Wilshere play? He's no defensive midfielder...

Lost a bit in the hand-wringing and malaise after the draw with Man U was the tepid play of Jack Wilshere. This was a squad-wide issue, with few players distinguishing in a way that might have led to three points. It was nonetheless distressing to see how anonymous Wilshere was. Playing from the defensive-midfield, I expected to see him make more of a mark on the match than he did, whether for good or for bad, but, in the end, he was just kind of there without drawing much attention.

There was the one nifty sequence about three minutes in when he tiptoed around a few defenders to get into the box but couldn't quite get the shot off. Beyond that, however, there's little good to be said about his performance. In fact, were it not for a brilliant Szczesny save on van Persie's strongly-driven header in the 79th minute, Wilshere would have been guilty of a number of cardinal sins: pushing too far up the pitch, getting dispossessed, and failing to track back. Just before the Man U counter that produced the Rooney cross to van Persie, after all, it was Wilshere receiving the ball with his back to the Man U goal, but he lost it almost immediately, and, despite seeing Man U launching a rare counter-attack, he could barely be bothered to jog back.

We've long known and worried about Jack's defensive commitments, but that sequence brings it into sharp focus. To take a broader view, in his role as a defensive midfielder, he registered a veritable 2,000,002 score; that is, 2 tackles, 0 interceptions, 0 clearances, 0 effective clearances, 0 shots blocked, 0 offsides-won, and two fouls. Now, some of those are not his fault as a defensive midfielder is rarely in position, for example, to catch an opponent offside. However, contrast that stat-line against the kind that Ramsey frequently delivers when he's in the DM role, when he regularly delivers tackles and interceptions, occasionally leading the squad in one or the other. Without Ramsey and Flamini available, we've had to slot in other players, including Ox, Rosicky, and Jack.

Of the three, Jack seems least-suited to the DM role unless he can learn to commit more thoroughly to the "defensive" element. At this point, unfortunately, this does not appeal to his skill- or mind-sets, which seem to favor picking up the ball and driving forward. His positional sense and tackling are not yet strong enough to allow him to shield the back-four or negate counter-attacks, unless we're willing to credit Jack for fouls that stop play, which I'm not. In the short-term, until the return of Ramsey, we may have little choice but to rely on Jack there. The Arteta-Flamini pairing seems to swing the pendulum too far in the other direction, replacing the defensively-impaired Jack with the offensively-inept Flamini.

The answer, though it may have to wait for the return to fitness of Aaron Ramsey, is to play Jack as a deep-lying central midfielder even if this pushes Özil out to the right. After all, with Walcott out, we have a bit of a gap there to fill as well, and we've seen how Özil has himself struggled in the central role. Allowing him to roam along the flanks a bit might liberate him from some of the pressure he's been under while putting Jack in the middle where he can play as the engine that drives the offense forward. With Rosicky then playing in the DM role, his stronger sense of the role, work-rate, and willingness to press up the field without abandoning his position, such a set-up might restore more of the aggressive push we've lacked in recent weeks.

In the longer term, I see a defensive midfield pairing of Wilshere and Ramsey and salivate. For now, however, Jack doesn't seem ready for the responsibility, at least not against the stronger sides. With Flamini coming back, I'd suggest that he and Jack would work well together, with Flamini barking out instructions to Jack about where to be and how fast to track back. The malaise that has afflicted the squad lately is an issue, and I want Jack on the pitch for his intensity and drive. In fact, with him as a CAM and with Rosicky behind him as a DM, there's a lot of buzzing about that could be available, enough to harass and discombobulate quite a few opponents in weeks to come
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