He was touted as the most talented English footballer since Scholes, and he ran the show against Xavi and Iniesta. He stepped up to replace Cesc Fàbregas, and won two Goal of the Season competitions. He prompted a crowd of Arsenal fans to call Tottenham Hotspur shit in public. Twice, and he took a £40,000 FA fine for it the second time. While question marks will always remain over patches of Jack Wilshere’s career, there is no doubt that he is about as much of a “cult hero” as Arsenal fans have seen since Tony Adams.
And yes, the affection Arsenal fans have for Jack clearly goes far deeper than that night against Barcelona. A boy who grew up watching Henry and Pirès, he developed into a footballer with a deft touch to rival them both. He is typically Wenger-esque, graceful and elegant on the ball with good old-fashioned English fire when things aren’t going his way. Wilshere is for many the embodiment of Arsenal on the pitch; off the pitch, in the aftermath of Arsenal’s 2014 FA Cup final win, he claimed “We never do things the easy way, do we?”
So let’s just get this straight: seeing him leave on loan this deadline day gone was heartbreaking for some Gooners. The worst bit? He might not come back now.
There was a rumoured twenty or so clubs that approached Arsenal when news broke of Wilshere planning his gap year. While a player of Wilshere’s considerable calibre would improve many of them though, AFC Bournemouth was the obvious fit for so many reasons, and not just because it’s close to home. Bournemouth have a recent history of nursing key players back to full fitness – Callum Wilson, Maxi Gradel, Wilshere’s close friend Benik Afobe – and all of them come back brimming with the confidence that Wilshere has lacked this past two to three years. Eddie Howe, rumoured to be on a shortlist to replace Wenger, retired at 27 because of appalling injury problems. He knows firsthand how gutting it is. He’s there every step of the way with players who suffer similar setbacks; it was clear when Gradel and Wilson scored goals after returning that they credited Howe with helping them, as they both ran towards their manager in celebration. At Bournemouth, Wilshere was never going to be pushed too hard; this season, Howe has almost every game, made the same substitutions. And as Bournemouth look to control possession for the remaining twenty minutes of a game, Wilshere is withdrawn for Dan Gosling. Fresh legs tactically, and a move to protect Jack physically.
The fact that Wilshere feels more a cog in the engine than a marquee star is credit to both him and Howe. Wilshere obviously went on loan of his own accord; he wanted to better himself, has never had a problem with buckling down to work harder for his place, and that’s the ethic that Eddie Howe has instilled at Bournemouth. No one player is bigger than the side – a fact reinstated in the summer when star Matt Ritchie left after Bournemouth refused to break their self-imposed £30,000-a-week wage cap – and even though Wilshere is the only English international in the Bournemouth side, he still isn’t the first name on the teamsheet.
The integration into the side is perfect too. The Cherries play with ever-present Andrew Surman as a regista at the base of midfield, and often employ Harry Arter next to him. Arter is typically box-to-box with his last-gasp tackles and ability to carry the ball; in a three-man midfield last season, Gosling lacked quality under pressure, which left Surman and Arter having to tidy up too much; the addition of Wilshere adds another dimension. On a particularly sparkling day, Jack Wilshere holds onto the ball better than most midfielders in Europe; Arter has become a more complete midfielder with this kind of teammate giving him possession, freer to use the ball when Wilshere is the one finding him. When Wilshere is the one further forward than a Arter/Surman pivot, it’s Wilshere that can create, as Wenger wants him to for Arsenal. This is the blueprint for how Ramsey and Wilshere best functioned in North London, and the Howe philosophy of everyone being equal isn’t just a dressing room mantra, but clear when you watch Wilshere, Arter and Surman all working for each other. It’s a classic three-man midfield of deep-lying playmaker, box-to-box midfielder and creative spark. It’s a budget version of the ones that Guadiola or Wenger might have assembled, but it’s effective right now.
Because passing accuracy has improved on last season, and Harry Arter is starting to assist. The defence are conceding less and making far fewer mistakes, because they’re not being put under pressure by a midfield who can’t move the ball out of their half. Jordon Ibe is creating more chances than Matt Ritchie did last season, has a higher pass completion rate and has had to tackle less, as the midfield are stronger with or without the ball. Bournemouth want to play on the floor for the most part, and Wilshere is integral in getting the ball from Francis and Cook, through to Wilson and King; Jack’s completing more passes but he’s also creating more chances than he did two years ago when he made 14 appearances for Arsenal. Though he’s playing deeper at times than where Wenger prefers him in the Özil role, at Dean Court he gets to use his ability to keep the ball against a press, like he does for England, and he’s averaging 15% better at take-ons, which will please Arsène. This all-action role is not only upping his fitness, as he has to fight in every game – Bournemouth average 50% possession in the league, considerably less than Wilshere is used to – it’s giving him the chance to work on all aspects of being a midfielder. He isn’t the conventional box-to-box type, but at Bournemouth he’s part Cazorla, part Özil, without the fear that he’ll injure himself higher up the pitch.
And that’s maybe what’s even more heartbreaking for some Arsenal fans. The man they dreamed would captain them, become their talisman, fits nicely into a Bournemouth midfield and gets the best out of his teammates rather than stealing the spotlight for himself. He looks happy. He’s playing well. He doesn’t quite catch the headlines like he’s used to, but he’s part of a team; not the one anyone thought he’d end up in, but a team with strong spirit and will to work for each other.
What seemed like a year to get some fitness is now becoming a turning point in his life. Maybe Wilshere isn’t the one-club man we all thought, and maybe it just took a club like Bournemouth, to get the best out of a player who only ever wanted to give his all for Arsenal. It’s a credit to Eddie Howe, that he’s got such a big player to integrate so seamlessly; it’s a credit to Wilshere himself too. What do we think of Southampton?