No smoke without fire, but Arsenal star doesn’t deserve criticism

Arsenal's Jack Wilshere

Arsenal's Jack Wilshere - Credit: PA Wire/Press Association Images

It seems to have been open season on Jack Wilshere in recent weeks – both on and off the pitch.

Castigated for posing with a cigarette outside a London nightclub, the Arsenal midfielder has also come in for some criticism over his recent performances on the field.

The received wisdom appears to be that Wilshere has been unimpressive so far this season – and even his goal at West Brom, which saved Arsenal from defeat and kept them top of the league, was viewed by some as just papering over a poor performance.

The 21-year-old was jeered by the home supporters at The Hawthorns and was even singled out as something of a scapegoat for the national team after England’s drab 0-0 draw in Ukraine last month – a result which left them in pole position to qualify for the World Cup finals.

So why the sudden shift in tone when it comes to appraising a player who, not that long ago, was hailed as one of the country’s best young prospects?

Firstly, the smoking issue – which is really a side issue. The reality is, as Gunners boss Arsene Wenger acknowledged, that many of Europe’s top players in recent years have been frequent smokers.

The habit has always been especially common among French players – including World Cup winners like Zinedine Zidane and some of those who have represented Arsenal during Wenger’s long tenure.

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And let’s not forget that key figures in the successful Arsenal sides of the late 80s and early 90s, such as Tony Adams and Paul Merson, managed to keep performing to a high standard despite their battles with genuine addiction to other vices.

However, as Wenger has made abundantly clear, a player in Wilshere’s position cannot be seen even to indulge in the occasional cigarette as that sends out the wrong message to the public. If Wilshere lights up again, he will surely do so behind closed doors.

More importantly, there are several factors that fans and pundits need to keep in mind when it comes to assessing the young midfielder’s form on the pitch.

Although it is now five years since Wilshere made his Gunners debut, he is only 21, an age where he is still maturing and still, to a certain extent, finding his way in the game.

It should also be remembered that he spent more than a year out of action thanks to his persistent ankle problem and has rarely had the opportunity of a lengthy, uninterrupted run in the side.

This season Wilshere has also been required to adapt to a new role in the team, branching wide to make room for record signing Mesut Ozil in the main playmaker’s position behind Olivier Giroud.

That is not a straightforward switch to make, with the onus on Wilshere to provide some of the width the Gunners are lacking in the absences of the injured Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott.

Rewind 10 or 12 years and there are clear similarities to another player who learned his trade in Islington – Joe Cole, then touted as the talented young creative midfielder who would dominate English football for years to come.

Cole burst onto the scene at a young age and was fast-tracked into the national team, but a lack of genuine wing options at West Ham meant he was pressed into service on the left side of midfield.

He never really got to grips with that role and now, back at the Hammers and approaching the age of 32, Cole is generally viewed as a player who failed to fulfil his true potential.

It would be fair to assume that Wenger sees Wilshere’s long-term future in a central role, where he looks most at ease and most dangerous.

But for now, the injuries to Oxlade-Chamberlain, Walcott, Santi Cazorla and Lukas Podolski mean that Wilshere must step into the breach. And, in the circumstances, so far he has actually done the job fairly well.

It’s not so long ago that another young Arsenal midfielder was regularly labelled sub-standard, not good enough to wear the shirt and so on. Few are saying that about Aaron Ramsey now…