Jack Wilshere's Champions League memories

Wilshere Barca

Season 2010/11 was Jack Wilshere’s breakthrough year, and no performance announced the talented teenager’s arrival on the global scene more than his dominant display against Barcelona in the Champions League knock out stages. 

Academy product Jack made his debut as a 16 year old in 2008, and two years later had become a regular in the side, making 49 appearances in all competitions, including seven in the Champions League. He contributed assists in the opening two group stage games, then scored his first European goal in the 5-1 home win over Shakhtar Donetsk. 

But it was the way he outshone the likes of Andres Iniesta and Xavi in our 2-1 win over the all-conquering Barcelona side in the Round of 16 that really turned heads. The combative, skilful midfielder would go on to play nearly 200 times for us, though his career was hampered by injury. He retired in 2022 and is now the head coach of our under-18 side, leading the young Gunners to the FA Youth Cup final during his first season in charge last year. 

We caught up with Jack to reminisce on the Champions League campaign of 2010/11. 

You made your Champions League debut back in November 2008 as a 16 year old, becoming our youngest ever player in European competition, what are your memories of that day? 

I remember it well, it was an important group stage game. Sometimes at that age you feel like you are in the squad just to make up the numbers, get the experience, but that day I remember thinking it was great to be on the bench, and wasn’t expecting much more. It was a tight game, it was still goalless when Arsène turned to me and said I was going on. It was great because I felt that he actually trusted me and needed something from me. It all happens very quickly in the moment, it’s only afterwards that you reflect on it, and I realised it was a big moment for me, because he trusted me and I was able to repay that faith because we won the game. 

By the time 2010/11 came around, you were a regular starter and you played in our first group stage game, a 6-0 home win over Braga. What was that like for you? 

Yes that was my first proper season, because I had been on loan at Bolton the previous year, and in fact I remember coming back while I was on that loan to watch us against Barcelona in the Champions League. I had watched loads of Champions League games while I was in the academy, at Highbury too, but this season I was properly involved. I remember we did really well in that group stage, scored lots of goals and played well. I started to have an influence in that group. 

I remember thinking that it was different to the Premier League – different refs, a different style and you have to play a little bit differently. The Premier League was so full on and so aggressive, in the Champions League you had a bit more time on the ball, but you had to use it more intelligently because even sides like Braga were technically very good, and when you gave the ball away, it took longer to get it back. At that point in the Premier League we knew we would dominate the games, but in Europe you had to use it more intelligently. I remember thinking before that game ‘you’ve played in the Premier League and that’s ok, but now you have to step up.’ I knew people from around Europe would be watching now, so it was another chance to show what I can do.

“To this day, I have moments when I’m driving home and I think ‘we could have won that!’”

You were heavily involved too, with backheel assists in the first two games… 

Yeah I remember that. In the Braga game we were already 2-0 up, so I thought I could just try something in the box. It went through the guy’s legs and Marouane Chamakh finished it nicely. Then we played away to Partizan, and the atmosphere there was something I’d never experienced before. It was so hostile and their players were aggressive, good at the dark arts. Myself, Arshavin, Rosicky – we’d all been kicked the whole game, so it felt really sweet to score a nice goal like that against them. I rolled the ball back for Arshavin and he finished it. It was a good goal.

Then you scored at home to Shakhtar, and set up another for Theo Walcott in the away game. There were some difficult away games that season, how did you cope with that new experience? 

That was where Arsène Wenger was so good. He had given me the experience of travelling with the team a couple of years earlier, so I got used to the whole process of travelling with the pros, because don’t forget I was still a schoolboy at that time. But I’d seen how to behave on those trips, so it helped going away this season. I remember the Shakhtar game really well, we scored early – it wasn’t really my assist, I just released the pass and Theo’s crazy pace did the rest! But those games taught me a lot. Back then the Champions League had a lot more attention on it than the Premier League did, so it taught me how to handle a whole new level of pressure.

Jack Wilshere

Jack Wilshere

One of the few games you missed that season was the home game against Partizan, when you were an unused sub. How would you have taken not being selected at that age? 

Oh I’d have been desperate to play. I don’t remember why I didn’t play that one. I get asked a lot about that season – I played 49 games – and people ask if that was the reason why I was injured a lot later on. Whether I played too much. Whether it was or not will never be proven, and I don’t really care because if Arsène had come to me at that age and said: “You’re a little bit tired, I’m leaving you out” – which he wouldn’t have by the way – I’d have said: “No I’m fine, I want to play.”

We went through as group runners-up, and drew Barcelona in the next round, do you remember the reaction to the draw in the dressing room? 

Yeah I do. The draw was just before we went out to training. I was still young at the time, quite shy, didn’t say much, and I remember thinking ‘I know Barcelona are good, really good, but why is everyone so down?’ But we had played them the previous season and they were all thinking ‘here we go again’ because they knew how strong they were. I get asked about that game at the Emirates all the time, but what people don’t remember is that we didn’t start very well. I remember thinking ‘this is why the lads didn’t want to play them!’ because we were 1-0 down early, and it could have been more by half-time. We did come back into it though, and I remember making a tackle in midfield and the crowd just lifted. I set up a counter attack and it felt like that shifted the momentum. We had some chances, and Robin missed a few that he would be disappointed with. Even then, they were still a threat, but we learnt quickly that if you can beat that initial press, you can make chances. I think that’s why I did well in the game. A lot of the early part of the game was us trying to build up, and once we worked out how to beat their press, we had some success.

Did you do much analysis before the game? Was there anything about how they played that surprised you? 

Yes there was. Their whole game was possession-based - a high press, keep the ball, and make loads of small passes to try and provoke somebody out of midfield. What I had learned at Bolton though, playing in a 4-4-2, was learning how to defend out of possession. It all helped. My mindset shifted while I was at Bolton and I kept that with me throughout my whole career. At Arsenal we were used to us being the team with the ball, but at Bolton I learnt how to focus on the defending side, winning duels and trusting my ability in possession. In that Barcelona game I had to really focus on that. Back then we didn’t do as much analysis as now, and one of Arsène’s greatest strengths was giving us loads of belief and focussing on ourselves. But this game was completely different, we knew we wouldn’t have much of the ball. I remember the training session the day before the game, we worked a lot on our shape, spoke about being in the right positions defensively and we did a bit more of that sort of prep for this game. 

You were up against Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta – one of the greatest midfields of all time. Why was it so effective?

It was their understanding of how to play together. You hear Pep and Mikel talk about the third-man principal, and they were the best at that. If you thought you were marking Iniesta for example while Busquets was on the ball, Xavi would appear, then somehow Iniesta would move and become free and it was like they always had this extra player. They always focused on having a free man, trying to provoke that space, and they would do that with their small passes, because their technical level was so high. Their decision-making too, they would recognise any small movement from you, and pass through you. The connections and rotations they had were very hard to deal with.

But you put in a superb performance in the middle of the park, what was your reaction afterwards when you realised what you had achieved, individually and collectively? 

After the game Samir Nasri came up to me in the dressing room and said ‘you’ve gone to the next level, now you need to be consistent and keep up that level of performance.’ Then after that I was in the jacuzzi with Wojciech. We had come through the academy together, lived in digs together, and we sat there and just had a moment. Wojciech just said to me “we just beat Barcelona!” and this was THE Barcelona. Then the next day I think we had the day off. I’d moved out of home not long before, but I used to go back to my mum’s to do my washing, and so I spent the next day there. It didn’t really sink in straight away. There’s a picture of me and my dad with Xavi’s shirt, these were players I looked up to, so it was slightly surreal to beat them, but at the same time, it was only half-time, we still had the second leg to come. 

The second-leg was 0-0 until Messi’s goal just on half-time, how tough was that to take? 

It was but the lessons we took from the first leg were that, yes they can cause us problems, but we showed a lot of positives on the counter attack in that game. They were vulnerable to that, so if we could defend well – and we had to suffer a lot in the Nou Camp – then we would get chances on the break. Messi scored an amazing goal, but it didn’t change much for us, because we had come back in the first game too. Then we scored, a Busquets own goal from a corner, but then the red card for Robin changed everything. 

Van Persie was shown a second yellow card for kicking the ball away seconds after the whistle. What was your reaction to that red card at the time? 

I was thinking ‘what have I just seen?’ I remember being angry, and Arsène was so angry. I knew why he’d been sent off, but it didn’t make sense. The ref was terrible, and I’d never seen Arsène as angry as he was after that game. He was usually so calm, and kept us calm, but he knew this was out of his control. That’s when I knew it must have been a bad refereeing performance for him to react like that, with all that he’d seen in the game.

"It gave me a lot of confidence to go on in my early days, knowing what level I could reach."

But despite that, we had the chance to win it late on when you set up Nicklas Bendtner… 

Yes that would have made it 3-2 and sent us through. That’s what I mean about us being dangerous on the counter, even though they had so much of the ball, they took risks and we had chances. Arshavin won the ball I think, I broke through, Bendtner was in the right place, but he just took a bad touch. Still to this day, I have moments when I’m driving home and I think ‘we could have won that!’ We could have gone on that season and who knows? 

Barcelona went on to win the cup, and have gone down as one of the best sides in history, so how much pride do you take from that performance against them? 

I can certainly look back with fond memories from that first game, but if you ask everyone who played in that second leg, I’m sure they will say they were frustrated. Frustrated with the ref, frustrated that Nicklas didn’t score his chance in the last minute, but overall we competed with one of the best teams ever. I went to the final, against United at Wembley, and watched that big United side really struggle against them. So it gave me a lot of confidence to go on in my early days, knowing what level I could reach. 

Finally Jack, do you see any similarities in the potential of the current squad? 

Well the later stages of the Champions League is where we all want to be. The fans, the players, the manager – this is what it’s about. Setting your standards high and competing at this level. I think all of these quarter-finals will be cagey, because the important thing is to still be there after the first game. The knock-out stages are a different mentality, you have to be switched on, but I feel like what Mikel has done bringing the fans together over the past couple of years will be so important now. I’m convinced our supporters can help us get over the line. Arsène used to always tell us not to take being in the Champions League for granted, and our recent history tells us how hard it is to get here. So now we are here, we have to make it count, and see what we can do.

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