Being born on New Year’s Day suggests a talent for fresh starts. As Jack Wilshere reached 26 on Monday, there was a growing sense of a career reborn. Still to be resolved however is the question of whether he is quick enough to thrive again at the level Chelsea bring.
Not only Chelsea but all the Premier League’s best sides, and the finest in the Champions League - and the top nations at a World Cup. One of the more warming tales of a frenetic Christmas schedule has been Wilshere’s return to a starting place in Arsene Wenger’s team. For it to last, Arsenal’s first goalscorer in a 2-2 draw will need more of his youthful zip to return, and to not throw himself into tackles or risk being sent off for diving.
This was Wilshere’s first goal in 43 league games. His last had been against West Brom in May 2015, and this one lit the fuse for an enthralling second-half. This was the type of game Wilshere was born for.
He has played eight games in less than a month, and this was his seventh consecutive league start. He was particularly impressive last week at Crystal Palace, where he shaped Arsenal’s play and motored about the pitch. But there is a leap to be made against teams of Chelsea’s calibre. You have less time to think and react. The opposition pounce on sluggish movers.
This happened to Wilshere numerous times in the first-half as Cesc Fabregas in particular recognised the opportunity to isolate the best young English midfielder of six seasons ago. Playing alongside N’Golo Kante in a Chelsea screen far more suited to the task than Arsenal’s pairing of Wilshere and Granit Xhaka, Fabregas knew he could try to play round the home team’s No 10 without fearing his speed across the ground.
Wilshere knows the dangers of slowing down. Back in October, he was talking about restoring his “ first five-metre burst” - one of his signature moves in his teenage years.
A cameo on 36 minutes told a story. In Arsenal’s half, Eden Hazard burst away from Wilshere, who gave up the chase and flapped his arms at his defenders, accusing them of not helping. Then he turned and went lunging into Fabregas, earning a caution from referee Anthony Taylor. A classic case of frustration caused by a loss of thrust: a hard thing to live without in this echelon.
Wilshere has had one pomp, and seeks another. This year will extend his Arsenal career to a decade. But since making his debut aged 16 and 256 days he has made only 157 Premier League appearances and scored eight times. Throughout December pundits have wondered: is this the big comeback, or another false dawn? After so many injuries, and his spell on loan at Bournemouth, it has been striking to see him jog out in his red and white playmaker’s shirt for every game.
Wenger, with his words, and by continually picking him, has placed his faith in a renaissance - and will probably offer Wilshere a new contract. “What is a very important quality is always to continue to believe in human beings – I believe everybody is alive to fight, so I never gave up on him,” Wenger said.
“Where he has improved is tactically and defensively. When he does that his offensive game becomes even better. Jack has a great quality; when he wins the ball he gets you out of the first pressure because he has that little burst and then suddenly he can open the game for you.”
This claim was less convincing with Chelsea on Arsenal’s turf, though Wilshere was always prowling, always positive in his use of the ball, and was quick off the mark when the ball flew off Alvaro Morata’s legs and into his path for Arsenal to take the lead, soon after Wilshere had been accused by Chelsea of diving.
Arsenal vs Chelsea – player ratings
In mitigation, too, Xhaka is the wrong kind of accomplice for Wilshere as he strives for consistency in the absence of Aaron Ramsey and Santi Cazorla, that long-term absentee. Xhaka is no specialist holding midfielder (nor is Wilshere) and is mediocre.
Emmanuel Petit, one of the great Arsenal central midfielders, made this positional point the other day. “Sometimes it seems as if Wilshere considers Xhaka the sole holding midfielder, and that he is responsible only for the transition and to act as a playmaker – but you also have Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez in the team,” Petit said.
But seven straight league starts and a rare league goal, against Chelsea, bolster the hope that Wilshere can add a chapter to his story in 2018 that is a little closer to the marvels of 2010-11. If his physical flaws can be disguised, and his strengths accentuated, England may yet reverse the policy of not seeing him as an international player until he provides overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
As Wenger indicates, the lost boy of English midfield play has engineered his own recovery, to this point, and can see now where dedication could yet take him.