This story first appeared in the June 2016 edition of the Arsenal Magazine.
This month we take an in-depth look at home grown midfield star JACK WILSHERE.
Position: Midfielder Squad number: 10 Nationality: English Born: Hertfordshire, January 1, 1992 Joined Arsenal: as a scholar in summer 2008 Previous club: Bolton Wanderers (loan) Arsenal debut: v Blackburn Rovers (a) League, September 13, 2008 (won 4-0) First Arsenal goal: v Sheffield United (h) League Cup, September 23, 2008 (won 6-0) Arsenal honours: FA Cup winner 2014, 2015, Community Shield winner 2014 England caps: 28 (2 goals) Twitter: @JackWilshere
"I can remember that we were all very excited when Jack turned up at the academy,” LIAM BRADY recalls.
It was the early 2000s and Jack, only nine years old, had just joined Arsenal from Luton Town. “We saw him play for Luton and the scouts recommended that we should get him in,” Liam continues.
“He came in on trial and his dad was a bit reluctant to commit but the people who were working in the academy at the time, people like Roy Massey, persuaded him to join us.”
So what did Liam see in Jack when he first watched him on that cold morning in Luton? “We were all very excited because he was just so good on the ball,” Liam remembers. “He could beat people at ease, he could score goals, he had a great left foot but also a great passion for the game.”
Some observers have remarked that Jack possesses some of the attributes that helped Liam to become one of Arsenal’s all-time best midfielders during his time at the club. Is that a fair assessment? “I do see similarities between us,” says Liam, nodding his head.
“I was a player that could run with the ball, and Jack is very much the same. He can open things up and I don’t think there are many things more exciting than to watch Jack burst through and past two people when they least expect it. I can remember that game against Barcelona when he was absolutely tremendous. On his day, he’s a world-class player. He could score goals, I could score a few too. But I’d like him to shoot more, because when he does, he can be lethal.
“I guess in terms of shape, we are quite different. Jack has quite a low centre of gravity and he’s certainly tougher than I was. Maybe sometimes he’s too proud for his own good, and from time to time I’d like to see him leave some of those tackles that he goes into. I was good at that! We were very similar in terms of not using our right foot very much. I just want to see him fulfill this great potential he has.”
Liam very much did fulfill his potential in north London. Like Jack, he came through the ranks at Arsenal - moving to north London from Dublin at the age of 15. After being handed his debut as a 17 year old in 1973, Liam went on to become one of the club’s foremost midfielders.
He made 307 appearances for the club, scoring 59 goals and helping Arsenal to win the 1979 FA Cup. In fact, Liam’s performances in his final three seasons at the club were of such a high standard that he was named in every PFA Team of the Year between 1978 and 1980. He also won the PFA Players’ Player of the Year award in 1979. Further success followed for Liam in Serie A - where he won two titles with Juventus - before his retirement in 1990.
Six years later - after spells in management with Brighton and Celtic - he returned to Arsenal as head of youth development. Liam has watched Jack mature from the nine-year old boy that impressed on that morning in Luton to the tenacious, all-action midfielder we now know. But what was Jack like as a boy?
“He always had that determination - and he used to get into trouble sometimes,” Liam explains. “In the academy at the time, we’d have what’s known as a sin bin. If he was misbehaving on the pitch, the referee would give him 15 minutes to cool off before letting him come back on.
“Jack invariably had to spend 15 minutes on the sideline, usually for reacting to somebody tripping him up or fouling him. I can remember one big match we had against Juventus at an under-16 tournament in Italy.
“They’re going to target you - I know what the Italian clubs can be like and what you mustn’t do is retaliate,’ I told him. After five minutes he was sent off! But he learned his lesson. You can’t do things like that in football and he’s learnt that. “Arsène gave him a chance early on and then I think he realised that Jack needed experience and it was better for him to go to Bolton and get some games under his belt at a young age, which he did.
“When you’re a young midfield player, sometimes you start your career on the outside and work your way in. That happened to me - I played on the left wing quite a lot and sometimes I even played on the right. Jack’s the same. I think the way Arsène plays is very fluid, so players can pop up all over the place. You watch players like Ozil or Jack receive the ball in their own half, and then the next time they get the ball, they’ll have popped up on the wing or alongside the centre forward. I think Jack is able to do that.
“He’s been very unlucky with injuries but I think he’s up there with the best players that have come through at Arsenal,” Liam concludes. “I just hope he can have more luck with his injuries. He showed how important he can be, both for Arsenal and for England, at the end of the 2014/15 season. I just hope he has a long and healthy career at the club.”
Five moments which have defined Jack's Arsenal career
First-team debut September 13, 2008
It can be hard to gauge just how good academy players are, no matter how talented they appear, but there was already a buzz about Jack Wilshere as he prepared to take the field against Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park in the early stages of the 2008/09 season.
An 84th-minute substitute for Robin van Persie, Jack made history when, at the age of 16 years and 256 days, he became the youngest-ever player to feature for the Gunners in a league match (Cesc Fabregas held and still holds the overall record, by the way).
OK, he didn’t have a lot to do as Arsenal cruised to an impressive 4-0 win, but his arrival into the action showed the faith that Arsène Wenger had in this prodigious talent.
“I bring English players slowly through, ” said the boss after the game. “He is another one who will soon play for you [England].”
England would have to wait as Jack played instead for Bolton, heading to the then-Premier League club on loan in early 2010 to gain valuable experience. He made his debut against Manchester City on February 9 and rapidly established himself in the team, making 14 appearances and scoring his first Premier League goal in a 2-1 win over West Ham on March 6. Bolton tried, unsuccessfully, to snap him up for another season. But by the time he returned, he was ready for regular first-team action in an Arsenal shirt.
FA Youth Cup triumph May 26, 2009
Before that, however, Jack had to bring the curtain down on his junior career. He had of course already made his senior debut as Arsenal prepared to take on Liverpool in the 2009 FA Youth Cup final, and was by now used to playing with older, more experienced players – he had made his debut for the Under-18s at the age of 15 and scored 13 goals in 18 games during his first season at that level.
The young Gunners had already won the league title, and in the FA Youth Cup semi-finals they beat holders Manchester City 6-2 on aggregate. It was somehow appropriate that they went on to beat Liverpool by the same scoreline, with Jack pulling the strings.
As The Guardian said of the first leg, “Wilshere, who is 17 but has already played in the Champions League and the Premier League, ran the show, drilled in a penalty and claimed two assists with perfectly crafted passes.” It was a talented young team containing the likes of Francis Coquelin, Henri Lansbury, Kyle Bartley and Emmanuel Frimpong, but Wilshere was the star, as he demonstrated to a growing army of admirers at that summer’s Emirates Cup.
He was named Man of the Match in both of Arsenal’s games: a 3-0 win over Rangers in which he scored twice and a 2-1 win over Atletico Madrid, in which he was a half-time sub. Jack had arrived.
Performance against Barcelona February 16, 2011
Barcelona were on fire when they visited Emirates Stadium in the Champions League in early 2011, and David Villa duly gave them an early lead that was expected to turn into a landslide victory. Yet after the final whistle the talk was not of Robin van Persie’s equaliser or even – once the initial euphoria had subsided – of Andrey Arshavin’s late winner.
The talk was of Man of the Match Wilshere’s composed performance against two giants of the game, Xavi and Andres Iniesta. He made Arsenal tick, and he had not long ago turned 19 years old. “He was outstanding tonight,” said Wenger after the game. “He was not fazed by the occasion in difficult periods. He took the ball and got out of the pressure.”
Xavi was impressed at the time, and even as recently as last November – when Jack hadn’t even played for four months – he was heaping praise on the Arsenal midfielder, labeling him “the future of English football”.
“If he had a career that had been injury-free we would already be talking about him as one of the top central midfield players in Europe,” the Barcelona legend told ESPN. “I have played against him, I have watched him carefully, and if he can overcome injuries, then he can still go on and be one of the best midfield players in the world.”
Goal against Norwich City October 19, 2013
It’s usually easy to memorise great goals – they have a habit of imprinting themselves on the brain. It’s all-but impossible with the mesmerising build-up to the goal Jack scored against a bamboozled Norwich City that took Arsenal to the top of the Premier League in October 2013.
"I must say I like him close to goal, because he has that penetration with his dribbling and his final ball. He can do that from deep as well, but I find him more efficient further forward. He can create"
Match Of The Day’s Goal of the Season went like this: Wilshere picked the ball up deep in his own half and went past two Norwich players before passing to Kieran Gibbs, who ran forward and played the ball up the touchline to Santi Cazorla. The Spaniard cut inside and played it square to Wilshere, from which point it went back to Cazorla, back to Wilshere, to Olivier Giroud, back to Wilshere, back to Giroud and back to Wilshere with a flick for Jack to finish the move with a controlled first-time volley.
It all happened quicker than it’s just taken you to read about it. Arsène Wenger was purring after the game. “It was certainly one of the best Arsenal goals, one that I enjoyed the most as well because it was a team goal. It had combinations and the speed which you always like your team to play with. This one was a mixture of technical quality, speedy thinking, quick reaction and as well being calm in front of goal. It had nearly everything you want to have, combining speed with a calm and relaxed attitude.” It was also a reminder of what Jack could bring to the team when he was fit and firing.
Goal against West Bromwich Albion May 24, 2015
OK, enough about team goals. Arsenal’s Goal of the Season from 2014/15 came 17 minutes into their final game of the campaign and was all about one man. Not Gabriel, who with his back to goal controlled the ball in a crowded penalty area and clipped a pass back out of the box, but Wilshere, who pulled back his left leg and unleashed a volley that sent the ball crashing past Boaz Myhill into the top corner.
It showed once again that, when fit, Jack has the potential to add goals to his all-round game. And he must have got a taste for it because he followed that up by smashing two long-range goals on the international stage that summer as England came from behind to win their crucial Euro 2016 qualifier 3-2 in Slovenia. That makes it even crueller that he was struck down by injury again in pre-season and missed virtually the whole of 2015/16.One thing’s for sure, though – we haven’t yet seen the best of Jack Wilshere.
Arsène Wenger on Jack Wilshere…
His early memories…
I first saw him play when he was 16-years-old, and the first time I saw him it struck me that he was something special. You also felt straight away that there was a kind of - I wouldn't call it arrogance, but belief. He was not fazed by anything and was ready to take people on. He had a good mixture - he was a dribbler but we didn't know at the start whether he was he a winger or more of a midfielder.
He had an understanding of the game which was way above average for his age of course, and all that convinced me that he was a central midfielder. That's a position where you need to work out quickly what's going on. At the time though he was a little boy. The first time I really played him was at the Emirates Cup where he had a bit impact straight away - he was still just 16-years-old.
He wasn't in the first-team squad for us, so we gave him to Bolton on loan for half a season. They played him wide at first, but then he finished the season in the middle. He came back to us and became a regular player. He was an exceptional talent - the kind of talent that you do not need to nurture for too long, because it's all there.
His best role in the team…
I must say I like him close to goal, because he has that penetration with his dribbling and his final ball. He can do that from deep as well, but I find him more efficient further forward. He can create. He is a big reader of the game, can take people on and has big collective reflexes. He can play one-twos and personally I like him high up the pitch, either centrally or out wide.
The verdict from… David Court
A former product of the Arsenal youth system himself, David Court was the assistant head of youth development at Arsenal from 1996 to 2014, and was a vital part of the academy setup throughout Jack's formative years.
"I think Jack was about nine when we brought him to Arsenal, he joined us from Luton Town. Myself and Liam Brady didn't get too involved until the players were a bit older, but I remember going to our Hale End academy one evening shortly after he joined. I think it was the under-10s playing an internal game and he certainly stood out even then.
"All the young players obviously had a certain amount of talent, but for whatever reason, some stand out more than others, and for me Jack certainly did. If you want to imagine what sort of player he was at that age, just picture a miniature version of what he is now! He was competitive and could run past players on either side. In fact what always stood out for me, aside from his obvious talent, was his determination and will to win.
"You can be the best young football around, but if you don't have that desire, you've got a major problem. Just as he's always committed whenever he plays now, he always wanted to win from a young age too. Sometimes he maybe wanted to win too much, and he got into trouble with the referees at times, but you always like to see that sort of spirit in young players, and we helped him to channel it as he grew up.
"He often played above his age group, and although he was never much of a shouter, he led by example. I particularly think back to the Youth Cup winning side of 2009. That was a very, very good side, probably a match to any youth team we've ever had - the midfield was Wilshere, Lansbury, Coquelin and Frimpong for example. Then Jack played for the first-team when he was 16, but it doesn't always follow that you will make a big career when you breakthrough early. There's a lot of hard work involved and it's very difficult to make the step up from academy to first-team regular. Not many can do it at any club, let alone a club like Arsenal.
"And I think in that respect Jack remains an inspiration for others coming through - you see it with Alex Iwobi now for example - and before Jack it was Ashley Cole. Ashley had the same temperament as Jack actually, and it's no surprise that those types of players go right to the top, because once they get an opportunity, they never let it go. They play football for the love of the game first of all. Jack can play anywhere on the pitch, and he's a perfectionist in many ways because he still has that total commitment, even though he's suffered from injuries over the years.
"He plays exactly the same way he's always done and you know what you will get with him. His first movement is always forward, in his passing and running, and he never hides on the pitch. That's what he brings the team now, and he was the same when he first arrived more than 10 years ago."
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