How will Arsenal find room for returning Jack Wilshere?
The England midfielder is close to a first-team return after 17 months on the sidelines
Finally it seems Jack Wilshere is ready to return to the Arsenal first team. The big problem now appears to be where to fit him in.
That was not a dilemma Arsene Wenger would have envisaged having this time last year, or even this time last month. But the form of his midfielders has been so impressive of late that Wilshere not being able to force his way back into the side is now a distinct possibility.
It is more than 17 months since Wilshere’s last competitive game for the Gunners, a depressing statistic that should be dispensed with later this month.
After the 20-year-old completed his first 90 minutes in a training ground friendly against Chelsea on Wednesday, Wenger looks to be considering a first-team return for Wilshere either in the home Premier League game against QPR on October 27 or, more likely, the Capital One Cup fourth round tie at Reading on October 30. He may even think about including him in next week’s Champions League squad for Schalke’s visit to the Emirates on Wednesday night.
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Making room for Wilshere in the Reading game should not be a problem, but in Wenger’s first-choice midfield the vacancy may be harder to find.
It is not just this summer’s new arrivals who Wilshere is competing with – he has been injured for so long that he has never played alongside Mikel Arteta or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for Arsenal, let alone Santi Cazorla and Lukas Podolski.
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Cazorla’s form in the opening two months of the campaign has surely made the central attacking role his own, unless Wenger is thinking of resting his Spanish playmaker, as he will surely do in the Capital One Cup.
Giving Wilshere the No10 shirt when Robin van Persie left the club in August was something of a symbolic gesture from Wenger, not a guarantee that Wilshere would become Arsenal’s man ‘in the hole’.
Even if that is where Wenger sees Wilshere at his most effective in the long term, Cazorla’s dynamic start to life in red and white has given him the edge.
With Arteta, vice-captain and almost an ever-present since his arrival in August 2011, also assured of his place in front of the back four, Wilshere would appear to be most likely to return alongside him in the more defensive minded duo in the 4-2-3-1 formation. But that position is already being hotly contested.
The man who played there in Arsenal’s last game, Aaron Ramsey, looks like he is returning to his best form.
When you add Abou Diaby, Francis Coquelin and Tomas Rosicky into that debate, it suddenly becomes apparent why Wenger did not sign an additional midfielder to replace Alex Song in the summer. Wilshere, Rosicky and Diaby have all had injury-blighted Arsenal careers, however, and Coquelin is still raw, but Wenger must have realised, and hoped, that a time would come when all of them would be available.
Ramsey, still only 21, appears ready to make a starting place his own. Ironically it was Ramsey’s absence with a broken leg that opened the door for Wilshere in the 2010-11 season, when the then teenager first rose to prominence.
Now the tables are turned, and Ramsey, the elder of the two players, is the man in possession. Wenger has utilised the Welshman on the right side of midfield of late, notably in the draw at Manchester City but, much like Wilshere, he looks more comfortable centrally.
The chances are that Wilshere will have to wait his turn. And waiting is something the England star has become increasingly good at during his recovery, a quality that has not gone unnoticed by Wenger.
“On that front he has been absolutely brilliant because he had not only ankle surgery, but when he thought that was over he had knee surgery. He handled that very well, I must say,” said Wenger.
“Jack had ups and downs, and many downs because he had a few setbacks, but he dealt with it very well, especially in the last three months he has been highly focused every day. Jack was in every day very early and worked all day through. He is rewarded now with a good condition.”
What he might not be rewarded with is an instant return to the first team. The usual managerial response to such a dilemma is that choosing who to leave out is a ‘good problem to have’.
Given how desperate the midfield situation was at times last season Wenger may have a wry smile at resources that suddenly appear to be at the other extreme.
Wilshere’s stature and importance to Arsenal has undeniably grown during his absence, and the supporters are desperate to see him return. But they, like the player himself, may have to be patient.