It hasn’t been a very good season to be an Arsenal fan. Anyone capable of listening to Piers Morgan without causing grievous damage to the nearest television will hear about a trophy drought that is now going on eight years. A fleeting glance at the team sheets of our opponents provides another stark reminder: players Gooners once cheered and proudly claimed as their own now wear different shirts, and raise the trophies that always seemed elusive in their tenures as Gunners.
There was always some small comfort in the sense that all this churn was by Arsene Wenger’s design, but his brow no longer seems furrowed in thought, with grandiose plans for future conquests buried somewhere in the creases. The team is not winning as much as it is supposed to, and this abstracted futurist has been forced to focus on the immediate, not seasons yet to come. And so he gazes at games with concern and confusion, watching Theo Walcott’s crosses go soaring off somewhere into the lower mesosphere. Arsenal isn’t just a club going through a barren patch—it’s a club that seems to be in danger of losing its identity.
The melancholy is palpable amongst supporters. My near-weekly pilgrimages to the local soccer bar to watch matches live have become formulaic: rise early, jump-start muddled senses with a shower, don a freshly washed 125th Anniversary shirt, drive to friend’s house and head into the city. We’re at the bar, black coffee in hand, 30 minutes before kickoff. What follows is what follows, and has ended as often as not with a charitable “Well, next week then” from the owner. Defeat, and the manner in which it occurs, has started to dig the pleasure out of it. It’s in danger of becoming rote. But there is, thankfully, happily, Jack the Lad. If there’s any reason for Arsenal fans on a stateside schedule to get up in the morning on game day, it’s Jack Wilshere.
Upon leaving the Emirates for the paradisiacal juggernaut that is FC Barcelona, Cesc Fabregas anointed the young Jack Wilshere. "There is not even a question over whether or not Arsenal's midfield is in good hands,” Fabregas said. “Jack will be the England captain inside the next two or three years, you don't have to be a magician to work that one out.” Wilshere’s talent was never questioned, but at the time these statements felt like platitudes: a charitable but half-hearted bit of encouragement from a player on the way out. Fabregas was Arsenal’s talisman, captain, and engine, and the most transcendentally talented young midfielder in world football; his kind words for his successor and his service to the club were much appreciated, but they did little to ease pain of his departure.
Wilshere’s play, on the other hand, has managed that. He has grown into his predecessor’s praise. Wilshere doesn’t possess the effortless grace of Santi Cazorla, pirouetting through the midfield and seemingly conjuring pockets of space out of thin air to disappear into as hapless tacklers fly by. He doesn’t have the lightning pace of Theo Walcott, torching fullbacks and cutting inside to (sometimes) curl shots around an advancing keeper. He’s not even the zen-like metronome that Mikel Arteta is, tying the attack together with easily overlooked and deceptively simple passes. He is, of course, not Cesc Fabregas. But Jack Wilshere is a unique one.
Wilshere’s most obvious and atypical trait is inherent in his nationality. Arsenal has had no shortage of treasured Englishmen, from Nigel Winterburn on up, but its flashiest and best-known employees have always been international imports. Thierry Henry, Robert Pires, Freddie Ljungberg, Patrick Viera, Cesc Fabregas: these are different players from different cultures, but their brilliance with Arsenal was accompanied and accented by a distinctly un-English lightness and style. Arsenal has often had its very English-ness called into question by those who care to make those sorts of pronouncements; having an English star, much less the flower of English football, is somewhat new.
Wilshere is certainly not the first young English player to be ordained the future of the national team either. Manchester City’s Michael Johnson and even Theo Walcott have had this dubious honor thrust upon them in recent years and have, to various degrees, failed to live up to it. Jack Wilshere could very well end up like them: owner of a very respectable career and many millions of pounds, but ultimately a disappointment in both perception and reality. That could happen but, man, have you seen the kid play?
Seeing Arsene Wenger laud his team’s “mental strength” in press conference after press conference does nothing but elicit laughs from neutrals and supporters. The perception, not wholly unfounded, is that Arsenal lacks the “killer instinct” of champions like Manchester United. Jack Wilshere’s game serves as a lone, but increasingly loud, rebuttal to this.
Wilshere plays with the utmost disregard for his body; every sinew and muscle uncoils and strains to propel him through the midfield in hurtling runs at the heart of defenses, and it shows. It’s not a coincidence that in a recent defeat against Manchester City, Jack became the joint most fouled player in a single match, suffering at the hands of the Citizens seven times; it’s a consequence of how he plays, and he’s not afraid to respond to such force in kind.
On a team where players often seem content to shuffle the ball sideways or backwards, Jack pulses forward with a mastiff-like ferocity, daring other players to take the ball off him. He gambles, flicking improbable passes to forwards in the opponent’s box. His consistent set piece delivery—something the Gunners have not had for what feels like ages—makes the team instantly more dangerous. His well-placed free kick allowed a poorly marked Olivier Giroud to head home against Liverpool at the Emirates, sparking a comeback that turned a 2-0 deficit into a heroic, if not disappointing, 2-2 draw.
Most importantly, he’s starting to show that he’s capable of taking games by the throat, and through nothing else but a titanic blend of will and desire drag a lethargic Arsenal squad back into matches all by himself. His blistering goal against Swansea City in the FA Cup served to cap a massive performance in which a combination of heroic Swansea defending and Arsenal offensive impotency had been the rule. Wilshere exerted his dominance over every facet of the match; the game-winner came off his boot. Jack reproduced the same virtuosic display at Sunderland two weeks later, taking on two men to slot the ball to Walcott. The subsequent layoff for Santi Cazorla to fire home the winner was the easy part—without Jack it’s hard to see that goal even happening.
When the team is flat and disengaged and hapless, there’s a dark irony to Arsenal’s motto “Victoria Concordia Crescit,” which translates to “Through Harmony, Victory.” Wenger has taken that motto seriously, and his squads have thrived not so much on a system as on a footballing philosophy espousing creativity, grace, and a cultured approach to the game.
This team is not thriving, and not presently embodying those virtues in any real way. With every defeat, the calls for Wenger’s and the board’s heads grow louder and more vehement. If there’s an antidote to this, and a player on Arsenal’s roster who might through sheer force of his talent and dedication create some of that old harmony, it’s Jack Wilshere. Jack the Lad may or may not wind up as England’s future, but he surely is Arsenal’s. No other team in the Premiership needs what Wilshere represents more than Arsenal; it’s tough to think of another player who could provide what he does. He’s the reason to watch, and the reason for hope.