With the Gunners having won every match in his absence, the 21-year-old, yet to fully bond with Santi Cazorla, could be under threat from the more attack-minded Czech
By Ewan Roberts
When Jack Wilshere exited the Emirates Stadium pitch on Saturday afternoon, Arsenal – victorious in all four of the matches the 21-year-old had missed through injury – were trailing 1-0 to Norwich City, a side who travelled to north London bereft of form and short on confidence.
Yet Chris Hughton’s hapless side, without a win in five games, had the lead. The young midfielder, unsurprisingly poor and off the pace following his injury lay-off, looked on from the sidelines and witnessed his team-mates mount an unlikely late comeback to pick up precious points in the race for Champions League football.
Arsenal were not playing badly while he was on the pitch, with the Canaries mustering just one shot during his 59-minute appearance (though it resulted in a goal), nor did they suddenly spark into life when he departed, but they lacked some of the intensity and directness so ever-present while he was prone on the treatment table.
Playing in an advanced, attacking role, Wilshere had just one (off-target) effort on goal, attempted one through-ball, completed zero successful dribbles and made no key passes. He dropped deep in search of the ball and rarely offered support to lone striker Olivier Giroud.
He also carried the ball into the final third fewer times than deep-lying midfield anchors Mikel Arteta and Aaron Ramsey, while his percentage of passes in the final third (35 per cent) was bettered by the Welshman (37%) and dwarfed by Santi Cazorla (62%) – while all three substitutes were more involved in the attacking third too.
While Wilshere was on the field, Arsenal had possession but, barring a few overlapping runs down the right flank by Bacary Sagna, not penetration. That has often been the case this season – until, that is, the Gunners had to make do without the England international.
There has been more directness about Arsenal in Wilshere’s absence. Against West Brom, for example, the joint-highest pass combination on the pitch was between Lukasz Fabianski and Giroud (the goalkeeper successfully sought the French striker 14 times). Long-ball, route-one football may be anti-Arsenal but it produced a 2-1 win, despite Per Mertesacker’s red card.
There was a greater willingness to hit Giroud early because of the support provided to him by Tomas Rosicky. The Czech Republic international, nicknamed “Little Mozart”, is a truer No.10 than Wilshere and it shows.
Rosicky struck twice at the Hawthorns, the first a flicked header from six yards and the second a powerful half-volley after his initial effort had been saved. Throughout the match he played between the lines, looked to run in behind the defence and offered support to Giroud – the Frenchman has previously been forced deep, devoid of someone to feed him, further congesting the midfield.
Wilshere and Giroud combined just four times against Norwich but the striker’s combination with Rosicky saw them find each other twice as often against the Baggies. Additionally, with the Czech breaking into the box, running beyond Giroud and playing far higher up the pitch, he was able to create space for Cazorla rather than contest it.
Giroud has prospered as a result, notching three goals and an assist in his last five games, all sans Wilshere. He also, somewhat fortuitously, won the controversial penalty against Norwich.
Of the 1184 total passes that Wilshere has attempted in the league, 32% have found a team-mate in the final third. For Rosicky, that figure is 41% and rises to almost 50% when solely measuring attempted passes in the final third.
With Cazorla drifting infield off the flank and Arteta cautiously recycling possession at the base of midfield, Arsenal do not need Wilshere dropping deep too. They have more than enough players capable of tightening the noose around an opponent’s neck but often lack a ruthless, final-third executioner to kick away the chair from beneath them.
It is in this respect that Rosicky has most shown his worth, firing a shot on target every 74 minutes compared to 392 minutes for Wilshere, and boasting 75% shooting accuracy to the youngster’s 57%. His figures last year were impressive, too, shooting every 88 minutes compared to 224 minutes for Wilshere (this season) and creating nine clear-cut chances to the England man’s three.
A slight worry for Arsenal is that, since mid-November, Cazorla’s strikes have come against sides with an average league position of 16th – Reading, West Ham, Sunderland and Aston Villa – while Wilshere has not netted a Premier League goal since November 2010. Rosicky, however, offers a different and much-needed form of attack.
Arsenal’s offensive shift sans Wilshere also coincided with a defensive reshuffle that has undoubtedly helped the Gunners. Sagna has returned to the side, replacing the often naive Carl Jenkinson, error-prone Thomas Vermaelen was dropped from the team (no outfield player in the Premier League has committed more than his six errors) and, perhaps most importantly, Fabianski was selected between the sticks.
The new back line laid down a marker at the Allianz Arena, becoming the only side to prevent Bayern Munich from scoring at home, and have since conceded just 0.75 goals per game in the league (compared to 1.16 with Wojciech Szczesny in goal and 1.28 with Vermaelen on the pitch).
Arsenal did not merely survive while Wilshere was absent, they prospered. Rosicky’s bravery on the ball, his willingness to attack the box, sits in stark contrast to the Englishman’s more cautious, methodical approach. Arsene Wenger must seek to find a way to incorporate his young gem without sacrificing the drive and final-third threat that was born out of his absence and kept the Gunners in the top-four race.
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