Jack's Back? Wilshere he is
Have you ever noticed how often the scheduling gods choose the most apropos moment for a club legend to face his old team at his former stomping ground for the first time? Somehow, they always foresee the occasion that promises optimal vindication for one side or the other in a messy divorce. Not for Jack Wilshere’s return to the Emirates, however. This time, it seems like they said, “Ah, let’s just get it over with.”
It’s hard to blame them. After two matchdays, the midfielder’s old and new clubs languish near the Premier League table’s soft bottom. Arsenal sit 17th, West Ham 19th. Neither has a point. In their four losses, the two woeful sides combined for three goals while shipping 11.
To be fair, the Gunners faced Manchester City on opening day then Chelsea last week. The Blues didn’t impress despite momentum after their 3-0 win over Huddersfield to begin the campaign. The game was there for Arsenal’s taking until Emery’s squad decided it’s better to give than receive.
West Ham also drew the short straw in their debut. Liverpool put them to the sword 4-0. Manuel Pellegrini then learned how much work his new project entailed when the Iron failed to respond, dropping their home opener to Bournemouth 2-1 after opening the scoring.
The Hammers’ motley crew harbours more than one castoff and underachiever.
Beyond Wilshere, there’s Javier Hernandez. Chicharito struggled to make his mark at Manchester United, then on loan at Real Madrid, despite always delivering value as an impact sub. The Mexican international enjoyed success with Bayer Leverkusen but yearned to prove himself on a bigger stage.
Marko Arnautovic forced his way out of Stoke just in time one summer ago. The London Olympic proved no different a working environment than the Bet365. The Austrian offered moments but also his usual inconsistency.
Michail Antonio’s English international form under Slaven Bilic before losing time to injury is still on the trainer’s table even though he’s returned to the squad. His remarks before the Liverpool defeat drew ire on social media. The beefed-up forward welcomed competition for his place, promised to work to keep it, then took a 90-minute lunch break while Liverpool manufactured four goals.
The man who plucked those balls from the net along with two more against the Cherries also returns to the Emirates, albeit not for the first time. After backstopping Swansea last season, Lukasz Fabianski could be facing a second season ending in relegation.
For their part, the Gunners remain unchanged from Arsene Wenger’s last days to the first under Unai Emery. If they could maintain 100% possession, they’d be Premier League champions. Alas, their opponents always find time on the ball to exploit Arsenal’s inept defence. After two 3-0 defeats to Pep Guardiola in five days last season, the 2-0 setback to open this campaign could be viewed as an improvement if allowing Chelsea to score at will the following weekend didn’t contradict the notion.
It’s possible the only moment worth an ovation this afternoon at the Emirates will be Wilshere’s introduction before the kickoff.
It’s been ages since Xavi heralded the young Englishman as England’s next great midfielder. Given the Catalan got just about everything else spot on during his Barcelona career, he probably hasn’t lost sleep over being so, so wrong the once. Eight injury-riddled years wreaked havoc on Wilshere’s potential to the point that, at 26, he looks like Wayne Rooney at 30.
In 40 2017/18 appearances, he provided a few bright moments, but the Europa League tie against Ostersunds was the cuppa with the damning tea leaves. Wilshere watched from the bench in the 6-0 away leg then started in the 2-1 home defeat. He didn’t have the support around him to make a difference. He doesn’t have it now. If Pellegrini partners him with Manuel Lanzini when the Argentine returns from cruciate ligament surgery in 2019, Jack's fortunes may change. Until then, life’s going to be a bleak struggle with West Ham.
To be fair again, [just this once more, I promise], Wilshere couldn’t be described as horrible in his first meaningful matches with the Hammers. In 180 minutes, he split time between an attacking and box-to-box midfield assignment, registering one shot and one key pass. His 84.9 % passing accuracy ranks 57th among Premier Leaguers who’ve started both matches. His 93 passes tie him for 60th overall, 31st among midfielders. In 119 touches, he’s been dispossessed just the once and fouled seven times. Defensively, he’s made three each in tackles and interceptions. He’s also committed three fouls, less than half as many as he’s drawn. In short, he’s been an above-average player in a mediocre squad.
On any other weekend, you’d say Arsenal’s form presents Wilshere with the opportunity to prove Unai Emery wrong for cutting him loose. West Ham’s play thus far rules it out. With the Gunners advantage in attacking speed and skill, the Hammers can expect to be pinned back throughout the afternoon. It’d be lovely to see Jack create a magical moment leading to a West Ham goal but odds are he’ll be chasing his old mates around so much his truculent side will emerge. A prop bet on first booking might be profitable.
Then again, Wilshere knows this Arsenal squad better than their new manager. Is anyone better equipped to heap further misery on the Spaniard than the discarded club legend? Maybe those impish little scheduling gods know what they’re about, after all.