With just days remaining until the Premier League season begins again in earnest, we’re taking a look at all 20 teams and the players we believe will make the difference for their clubs. Focusing on the players who are Making The Jump – young players ready to join the first team and make an impact, those players for whom this season is Make Or Break and those Season Makers who, should they perform to their highest capabilities, should be the key players for their respective clubs.
Cast your mind back to February 16, 2011, and a Champions League clash between Barcelona and Arsenal. Barcelona, Champions League favourites that year, were expected to trounce the North London club, who fielded a team including Robin Van Persie, Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri.
And yet, at the heart of the Arsenal midfield, Jack Wilshere shone brightest amid the likes of Andres Iniesta, Xavi and Sergio Busquets. Arsenal ended up beating Barcelona by two goals to one, but it was Wilshere’s performance that caused the biggest stir.
Just nineteen years old, having only recently returned to the Arsenal fold after a loan spell at Bolton Wanderers, Wilshere was a revelation. You’d expect a player of his age and inexperience to be somewhat overawed at the occasion and the opposition. But from the very first minute to the last, Wilshere hassled and harried, barely giving Xavi or Iniesta a sliver of peace. He broke up Barcelona attacks, charged forward with purpose, and was the best player on the pitch.
Fabio Capello, then England manager, heralded him as “the future” of English football. And he was. Against Xavi and Iniesta, arguably the best in their position in 2011, Wilshere showed the grit and graft of a classic English midfielder, but also the technical excellence of the Spaniards.
And yet, since that fateful night at the Emirates Jack Wilshere has not lived up to justified hype. Injury has been his greatest foe, a stress fracture to his ankle sustained in the summer of that year ruling him out of seventeen months of action. It halted his progress, and ever since, he has struggled to push on and defy the doubters, those who call for him to be dropped from the Arsenal side, who claim he doesn’t deserve to start for England.
But Arsene Wenger believes in him. Is that not enough? The Arsenal manager is highly protective of his players, and would never publicly denounce them. But he’s ruthless enough to drop them if they don’t cut it. Steven Gerrard, one of the best central midfielders of the past decade, describes Wilshere as a “one-off”. Borussia Dortmund winger, Marco Reus, dubbed him “a perfect player”.
His list of admirers is, notably, highest amongst professionals; the players and managers who meet him on the pitch and see him train. And yet sections of the media, and in particular the fans – of both Arsenal and rival clubs – see a player who falls to the ground too easily, who plays the easy pass and lacks the fitness to compete at the top level.
And it feels like this is Jack Wilshere’s year; good, or bad. Like teammate Aaron Ramsey last summer, widely derided by fans and pundits alike in the previous season only to go on and be Arsenal’s best player, Wilshere enters the 2014/15 season with massive expectations on his still young shoulders.
He’s had a difficult summer. England’s embarrassing exit from the World Cup – which he admittedly barely played a part in – and photographs leaked by the press of his subsequent holiday antics, which included smoking and drinking. He’s courted controversy before, but the pressure is mounting.
He has all the qualities to succeed. A compact frame, low centre of gravity and expert ability with the ball at his feet allow Wilshere to maraud forward from midfield, often leading and orchestrating attacks. An elegant passer of the ball, as adept at slipping a through ball on to an onrushing Theo Walcott as he is spraying a fifty yard cross-field ball to Keiran Gibbs.
He’s a fighter, too; his temperament both a blessing and a curse. He flies into tackles with no regard for his own safety, which is a quality we praise and denounce in arbitrary measure here in England. He does appear to go down too easily, although in his defence, Wilshere likes to bring the ball forward and drop past players, which brings you into contact and does lead to fouls.
He needs to add goals to his game – like much of the Arsenal and England team do, admittedly. In 132 Arsenal games, Wilshere has only scored 10 goals. He often finds himself in the box, but either his end product is weak or wild, or he decides to cut the ball back for a teammate, when you’d much rather he’d have a pop. To his credit, he did score the best goal of the Premier League season in 2013/14, finishing off a wonderful flowing move widely credited as among the best of Arsene Wenger’s reign.
It all comes down to this season, however. We can talk about that performance against Barcelona. We can bring up how highly his peers and managers rate him. But Jack Wilshere must answer his critics on the pitch. He appears to have a lost a little fire in recent seasons. We’d like to see him bring it back, and prove he’s the player we all hoped he’d be, back in February of 2011, shocking the Barcelona midfield and the rest of the footballing world.
Words by Julius Pepperwood