Two of the biggest talents these shores have seen in a long time. Both essentially central midfielders with versatility and heaps and heaps of talents. Both British and both absolutely essential to their nation’s footballing futures. And both play for Arsenal, and basically represent the creative future in midfield. So why is one of them almost universally loved and the other often scorned, underrated and even underappreciated by his own country. Yet to me, both are equally good and equally necessary for the future success of the club. And for a long time many were convinced that the one who is now not rated, was actually the better player, the bigger talent. So, Wilshere vs Ramsey, the battle in midfield and in the hearts and minds of fans. Can we effectively use both of them? Will Ramsey win back the love of the fickle fans who get on his back? Will both of them recover from losing a year of playing time and experience due to injury? And will they both turn their massive potential into something real and permanent?
So, let us look at the players. Firstly Jack Wilshere. Generally considered to be the most talented Englishman playing (or at least, soon) at the moment. The man who every journalist says Roy Hogdson should, and will, build his team around. The youngster who, at ages 18 and 19, was so convincing as part of our first team. The future captain of the club, if some are to be believed. A player so good he was fast-tracked from the U-18s to the first team at age 16. Jack Wilshere. What kind of player do we think he is?
It is always a difficult question, like with Ramsey and equally with people like Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Serge Gnabry: where do we think he should be playing? I bet you any money all four of them would prefer the number 10 position so excellently filled by Santi Cazorla at present. But, as is logical, only one can play there. Leaving the other two (Ox and Gnabry) out of the equation for a second still leaves us with two of the biggest talents in world football, both hoping to succeed in the central creative position. The reason for leaving them out of the equation is because we don’t know enough yet about the intentions of Le Boss for either. Ox is an excellent winger and to me more of a CM than an AM, and probably will never be quite creative enough to be the trequartista, the creator, the playmaker. As for Gnabry (and indeed Eisfeld, Aneke, etc.) we do not know yet just how good he will be, how Wenger wants to use him, and how he will develop. So, the focus is on Wilshere and Ramsey.
Wilshere’s biggest strengths to me are his ability to dribble, his ability in small spaces, his drive with the ball at his feet, and his almost Xavi or Scholes-like ability to spot a pass and dictate the play. His tenacity in the tackle and his short distance pace shouldn’t be ignored either. During his time in the Carling Cup side, his formative years if you will, he played further forward, usually behind the striker or strikers, and often also venturing into the wing. Indeed, when we look at the side we played vs Sheffield United in 2008 (the match that showed the world the might of both Wilshere and Ramsey) we lined up with 4 central midfielders (Merida, Wilshere, Ramsey and Randall) of whom the three creative ones all had abilities out wide. And so they interchanged in a ‘free role’ kind of way, with Randall sitting deeper. In their youth both Wilshere and Ramsey had played on the wing before and it shows, both understanding the role well enough. That match was one of the great accomplishments of the Wenger era, and it showed the way forward for the club, at least for a while. It also showed the potential for the future of offensive minded midfielders interchanging roles and positions whilst keeping an eye on the defensive needs.
Yet later in his (still very young) career, when to me he was at his best, he played a deeper role, box to box or even deep lying playmaker (the pivote I spoke of in an earlier article). During the 2010-2011 season, with Ramsey, Diaby and others out injured, Wilshere grabbed the chance by the b0ll0cks. Playing deeper alongside Song, he learned the discipline to be a true central midfielder, someone who blends attack and defence together so effortlessly, as well as learning to hang back when Song went on one of his marauding, suicidal runs. Yet Wilshere’s passing from deep was what may have impressed me most, it was inventive, classy and always forward thinking. In a world where Joe Allen is ever so lauded for passes going sideways, people should remember how Wilshere did in a similar role. As a true Wengerian player, every pass he made was with a next step in mind. In that sense he is the ultimate Barcelona type player, although here is hoping they never get their grubby paws on him. His ability to be an Abou Diaby, without Diaby’s physicality, was pretty amazing too. His drive with the ball at his feet, his tackling tenacity and dogged work, and the running he does all match long, from deep to attack, was what linked our defence and attack so excellently during that season.
So is that his best position? I think so. What we love about Jack Wilshere is his technical ability and his passing talent. Yet I am always more impressed with him because of that bulldog tenacity, his short stature seemingly unimportant as he dives into a tackle or shrugs off an opponent whilst on a marauding run. To be fair, our current no.10 (on the field, that is) Cazorla, has that similar tenacity and ferocious character, but I always feel he is just ever so slightly more silky than Wilshere. The interesting thing is, however, what Aaron Ramsey ends up doing.
You see, whilst I love Jack Wilshere as the box to box connector in a three man midfield, I feel Aaron Ramsey is better at that position. He is stronger, has an even better stamina, and has a similar lack of hesitation when it comes to using his body in a tackle or interception. When I talk to people about Ramsey, this side of his is widely ignored or underrated, maybe because they attach to him the stigma of the injured, broken man. His passing is not as intricate or forward thinking as that of Wilshere, but it is often very reliable and clean, just connecting play and not too often trying the impossible. I know people disagree with me on that, but I feel that way. Not that Ramsey can’t give the Hollywood long ball, or the immaculate through ball. Quite the contrary. I just feel he will offer less doing so than Wilshere will. In a future where we are very likely to have both Wilshere and Ramsey in our starting line-up, in midfield, one needs to be slightly further forward than the other. And to me, that needs to be Wilshere, if only because he would offer more than anyone else. But at best, naturally, the two of them continuously interchange like we know they can, and offer even more creativity and unmarkable confusion for opposition players. We saw this against ManU in the backend of the 2010-2011 season when Ramsey and Wilshere lined up with Song (nominally) anchoring them. Neither was definitely the more advanced, they interchanged and they overran the midfield. Whilst this sort of formation is a Gooner’s wet dream, I do feel that, in modern times, having a more defined line-up will afford more penetration, although the confusion I alluded to earlier would make it very difficult to defend against.
Aaron Ramsey then. Whilst I won’t try and answer the question of why fans dislike him so, I am interested to see what is his future at the club. Like Wilshere, he plays with his heart, and both have this wonderful, highly distinctive style of playing, passing and running, with the low centre of gravity, the straight back, the head up and the legs wrapped around the ball for protection. Like Wilshere he is capable of the phenomenal goal and here but unlike Wilshere (at least, the pre-injury Wilshere) he isn’t at all as loved by our fans as you would imagine. When I used twitter to ask my followers about whether they would prefer Wilshere or Ramsey as 10 and BtB, most of them said Ramsey as 10. That surprised me, but the rationale behind it was that Ramsey dawdles on the ball too long and has too many lapses. Whilst partly true, I feel that this is mainly because of the injury (we will get back to this later) and the fact that Ramsey has never been quite as natural a footballer as Wilshere. Less ‘street’, more ‘pitch’, if you will. Yet I feel that Wilshere’s innate ability to turn on a penny, to take on opponents, and that awareness of play, is better used as 10 than as BtB. Also, I feel that the people who distrust Ramsey do so for the very same reason that people get on his back: they don’t rate him anymore. This is highly unfair, for Ramsey is still a player of amazing raw ability and potential, who has been battered by injury. Already not a player with the very best awareness (his footballing brain, if you will, isn’t as attuned as Wilshere’s), his injury has slowed him down just a tad. You see the exact same situation with Abou Diaby. I think it is the year or so (in Diaby’s case even more) that they have spent on the side-lines that does it for them for both Diaby and Ramsey were in their late teens, early twenties when they got their injuries. Before his injury, as we all remember, we hardly had issues with Ramsey, who was the new wonderkid on the block, who many were preferring over the crab Denilson and whose performances against Portsmouth and Stoke were excellent. For some reason people seem to forget that two years ago, Ramsey’s career was in a balance, his leg snapped under the pressure of Ryan Shawcross’ malice. So, apart from being a year out, he also had a very slow recovery, as can be expected, in the most important formative years of a career. People need to get of his back. The psychological damage was massive, and on loan he really seemed out of his depth, despite showing he was a class apart (if that is possible). Over time, and this is something you can learn, he will get his awareness back. I already feel that, when out on the wing, his defensive awareness is excellent. Surely he can do similarly in midfield?
This brings me to the elephant in the room. We all talk about Jack (as do I in this article) as if the player who is coming back is the same player who went away. Sadly that is just not realistic. Whilst Jack has one advantage over Ramsey, namely that he won’t have the psychological damage of being tackled into oblivion, he still has been out of the game, out of football, for 14 months. For a guy who was 19 when he got injured, that is a staggering period of time. Imagine just how frustrated he must have been, how much he could have learned, both on the pitch and the training fields, and how much damage might have been done which will leave him permanently in and out of injury. We all should hope not, but it is easy to imagine that Wilshere isn’t going to be anywhere near his best for months, maybe even a year or two. Whilst people can say they hope he won’t, or that his injury, being less shattering that Ramsey’s or Eduardo’s, will be easier to recover from, just the sheer time he was away will have hampered his ability big time. Such a large part of football as a game is repetition, doing something right a hundred, a thousand times. It is part of what separates pros from the amateurs. Being out of that for a year, no matter why, will sincerely harm your progress, especially at this age. Yes, Wilshere is such a massive natural talent, that isn’t going away. But he might seriously find the ill effects for quite some time.
As such, it is a massive shame. Two of the very biggest talent in world football (no hyperbole) have basically missed out on a year, or more, of their footballing development, at an absolutely pivotal stage in their careers. I can’t speak for my readers, but I was absolutely salivating at the prospect of the two of them together in a line-up, complimenting each other perfectly and making for one of the most technical yet tenacious midfields in the world. Sadly, both have been crippled by injuries and massive bad luck. At the moment we are very lucky that Aaron Ramsey is playing as he is (his performances vs WHU and MCFC were very good indeed) and that his injuries seem to have left Jack relatively unaffected. What could have been, I do not know. As a historian it is frowned upon, contributing to ‘what if’ history. All I know is that at the present, the Arsenal squad is strong enough to cope, and both Ramsey and Wilshere still represent the future. Now if the fans could get off Ramsey’s back, and Wilshere can start playing again, the future might once again, be insanely bright. I think that is what every Gooner wants.