Amid the chaos at The Emirates, with constant questions over how efficiently Arsenal Football Club is being run, there is a silver lining that hints at success in the future. Arsene Wenger has a small cohort of young English talent that has the potential to turn around the club’s fortunes in the years to come.
Earlier this season, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Theo Walcott and Carl Jenkinson, along with Welshman Aaron Ramsey, were all tied down to five year deals, in a move to stop the recurring trend of the Gunners’ top assets leaving for rival clubs as their contracts run down and Wenger is faced with the choice of selling early or letting his best players leave for free in a year’s time.
But arguably more important than any of the four players previously mentioned, was the extension of Jack Wilshere’s contract. Although I do believe Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jenkinson and Walcott have the potential to become key figures for club and country, with the latter having arguably already reached that level of importance due to his excellent performances this season, Wilshere is at a different level.
The young midfielder looks better and more learned with every game, and played a pivotal role in the Three Lions’ 2-0 victory over Brazil in a friendly back in February. Despite being just 21 years of age, he undertakes a huge responsibility for Arsenal in the middle of the park, bravely galloping forward with the ball and searching for an unlocking pass without ever showing hesitation in fear of being caught in possesion and exposing his team.
Furthermore, he does the leg work for a midfield threesome along with Mikel Arteta and Santi Cazorla that is incredibly unbalanced and forward thinking. Most importantly however, Wilshere doesn’t shy away from the big games; three Champions League appearances have brought a goal and an assist, and similarly he was the only player to stand out during the Gunners’ mediocre displays against Bayern Munich as well as in the North London derby at the weekend.
There’s little doubt in my mind that Wilshere is the real deal. Compared to the current batch of English central midfielders, who have a knack of being over-rated and merited on potential rather than performance, such as Tom Cleverley, Jordan Henderson, Jack Rodwell and JonJo Shelvey, who have all received senior England caps, the Arsenal man is miles ahead.
But there comes a growing concern. Earlier in the season, there was a discussion of ‘burnout’ – the English tradition of overplaying youngsters only to limit their careers in the latter stages and shorten their footballing peak – but I have another worry.
I can’t help but to make comparisons with the current situation at Arsenal and that of Liverpool a few seasons ago. Following a team compiled of superstars that have moved on, the club have failed to successfully replace their key individuals, and after a few cycles of recruitment, now have a squad of much lesser quality. The club and the team have essentially depreciated in value.
Out of that comparison comes two individuals of immense similarity. From the Anfield club you have Steven Gerrard, a veteran midfielder who has been a talismanic force for his team ever since his ascension into the first team, and at the Emirates Jack Wilshere looks set to rise to the same level of importance.
At first glance, the association of Gerrard and Wilshere appears complimentary, considering the former is one of England’s most talented midfielders in footballing history, he’s racked up over 100 caps and is furthermore edging 100 Premier League goals. But there’s also some valuable lessons to be learned.
He will go down in the history books as the Premier League’s most consistent and exceptional player to have never won a league title. He may have a fair share of tournament trophies to his name, including the Champions League title and two FA Cups, but does that really highlight how talented an individual Steven Gerrard actually is?
When you cross examine with Frank Lampard’s trophy cabinet – Three Premier League titles, Four FA Cups and a Champions League trophy – and you begin to realise that the Liverpool midfielder, who the slim majority of English football fans have regarded as the better of the two in the eternal Lampard/Gerrard debate, could be a far more decorated player had he not made the decision to remain a one club man.
It’s not as if the chance never materialised for Gerrard to venture into pastures new. In 2004, a Chelsea bid of £20million was turned down, but the England midfielder admitted he had for the first time doubted his future at Anfield. Then once again, a year later the England man came even closer to a move to Stamford Bridge but had a change of heart on his way down to London. I admire his loyalty, but it has come at a price. Frank Lampard, on the other hand, made the big money move, signing for the Blues in 2001 at the cost of £11million, and has far more successful seasons to look back upon once his career is over.
Arsenal fans should be quite rightly pleased that Wilshere is tied down to a five year contract, that will quash any rumours of a move away from the Emirates despite the club’s failings this season, and furthermore, unlike the majority of contractual arrangements that can be tore up in an instant and do not secure a player’s service for any particular given length of time, I believe the Arsenal midfielder has every intention to loyaly stick it out for the full term.
But in five years time, he’ll be 26 years old and have reached a cross-roads in his career. Would he rather be the next Steven Gerrard – a one club man, who will forever go down in Liverpudlian folk law, but will always be remembered as the most talented Englishman to never lift the Premier League title – or would he rather be the next Frank Lampard – a footballer who has earned the recognition and decoration his talent has deserved, in terms of trophies, in a squad compiled of elite players at the same level as he is, that collectively achieved great success, domestically and on the continent.
I’m not suggesting that Arsenal will never return to past glories; that is always a possibility for such an illustrious club. But in five years time, if the Gunners are still ineffective in the title race, Wilshere owes it to himself to make his own fate and not get dragged down by blind loyalty.