Jack Wilshere showed just what he can bring to Arsenal this season as the Gunners recorded an impressive first pre-season win.
It has almost become impossible to find a dissenter to the view that England have had their most gifted footballers of a generation compete for world football’s biggest prize however this summer’s failings in South Africa have shown that, that may not be the case. English youth coaching guru John Cartwright insists English football’s most outstanding individualists such as Paul Gascoigne and Joe Cole have emerged in spite of the system, not because of it but in the case of Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere, that is all but false.
Wilshere holds the new generation’s most gifted talent but he is in no doubt as to the work Arsenal coaches Steve Bould and Neil Banfield have put in. “They deserve a lot of credit,” says Wilshere. “People say, ‘Arsenal’s youth set-up is good’, but they’re good coaches as well. They’re focused. You wouldn’t want to muck around or let them down.” Indeed, Wilshere’s football education represents a triumph of letting individuality express itself but in the past few seasons, most notably in the loan spell at Bolton, he has added a tactical steel into his game. Under Owen Coyle, the precocious attacking-midfielder was forced to reign his naturalistic tendencies as the club fought to retain their league status and as a result Wilshere looked an artist lost in a sea of pragmatists.
And at Barnet, Arsene Wenger looked to see just how much the playmaker has come on mentally as he deployed him in a deeper role, just to the left side of Emmanuel Frimpong. Wilshere showed none of the vagaries of an attacking style that has beset Arsenal for the last few season and put in a disciplined first-half shift. Arsenal’s pressing game demands the ball to be won back quickly but early on realised the virtue of dropping back to make a double shield just to retain the shape. In attack, Wilshere has the Cesc Fabregas-like capacity to turn the probing into the direct, as he, along with Andrey Arshavin, posed the Barnet defence with constant problems. “I’ve got a very good burst and that’s important to how I play,” Wilshere told The Times last year. “The boss wants you to go forward all the time and that suits my game. When I get the ball my first thought is, ‘Can I pass forward?’ If not then maybe I can travel with it. If not, then sideways.”
It was Tomas Rosicky and Arshavin who combined to make the first goal as the Russian tip-toed past the goalkeeper Cole, to impudently stroll the ball into the net. Great interchange between the front three and Rosicky and Wilshere was the order of the half and a number of quick one-touch passing moves typified a very impressive opening period. The energetic Jay Simpson scored the second and third as good running from Wilshere again created the goals.
Simpson, fighting for his Gunners future after delaying it with a good showing last pre-season, was mightily impressive in linking up play and his tireless work across the channels. The biggest surprise however was Frimpong who was measured in his approach at patrolling the centre, picking of his opponents with ease. It was not quite the dominance Francis Coquelin displayed two seasons ago at the same venue but after a nervous start, he realised the importance of the quick pass – although sometimes a bit too premeditated. Jay-Emmanuel Thomas worked hard on the right and helped stretch play although perhaps slightly predictable in his outcome. At the back, Laurent Koscielny had a mixed game, making some neat interceptions but at the same time, played in a nonchalant and carefree manner. The second half expectedly entered a slight lull but not before Marouane Chamakh showed just how suited he is to Arsenal’s game and Conor Henderson displaying some delightful touches. Samir Nasri punished lax Barnet defending to finish off an easy win.
Arsenal’s basic shape remained the 4-3-3 from last season although in placing greater emphasis on the importance of bands, could fluctuate between a 4-1-4-1 and a 4-2-3-1 (as detailed in figure 1 below). Impressively also, was the intensity Arsenal pressed, despite it being the first game of the summer. Of course, the ease in which the Gunners picked off Barnet can be attributed to the quality they were facing, nevertheless, there is no need to divulge into the weaknesses and strengths of their opponents as it was essentially a practice game. Yet, in a sense it was the perfect pre-season performance. There are mental hurdles Arsenal that will need to address if they are to win the title to augment their infinite technical ability but in terms of sticking to the game plan and understanding their roles and responsibilities, it was the start Arsene Wenger could have wished for.
<Figure 1> Arsenal’s first-half formation v Barnet: The dashed arrows represent defensive duties while the plain white lines display attacking movements. A loose 4-3-3 in the attacking phase with Rosicky pushing higher up and Arshavin roaming centrally, the onus is on Frimpong to patrol the centre (therefore a 4-1-4-1 with play fixating around Simpson’s movement). IN the defensive phase Jack Wilshere is assigned to cover the space behind Arshavin and can also drop back to make a double shield. Rosicky is finally detailed to move to the right of Frimpong to make a 4-3-3. Pressing starts with the front five players with only Simpson not detailed to drop back if required.