Questions Surrounding Jack Wilshere Should Relate To Position, Not Selection

Wilshere

So Roy Hodgson has finally named his 23-man squad for Euro 2016. Andros Townsend, Fabian Delph and Danny Drinkwater all missed out, meaning that one player whose position was highly debated, Jack Wilshere, made the cut.

The Arsenal man’s inclusion has been particularly controversial when viewed within the context of Drinkwater’s exclusion, and that’s probably not overly surprising when you consider that Drinkwater, a rock within the Leicester City side that recently claimed the English Premier League title, played over 3,000 minutes in the league this season compared to Wilshere’s grand total of 141. The gap is rather startling, and though Wilshere’s continued absence was due to injury, there seems to be a strong sense, at least amongst certain fans, that Drinkwater’s omission was down to Hodgson’s preference for reputation over production.

Yet it isn’t really that simple. Drinkwater may have been a standout at club level, but Wilshere, operating as a deep-lying playmaker, was similarly impressive during England’s Euro 2016 qualification campaign. Of course, it could be said that many of those performances came a fair way back, and that plenty of water has passed under the bridge since then, but for Hodgson they counted for a lot. After all, the 68-year-old has been aiming to mould a balanced team that can compete for a major tournament, and after watching England go unbeaten in qualifying, something to which Wilshere was a massive contributor, he naturally remains pretty high on the 24-year-old.

“Obviously, I think he is a real quality player. He ticks all the boxes,” Hodgson stated. “I had to ask myself certain questions. Number one, Is he actually fit now? Yes he is fit. Then I asked if he is the type of player who brings something different to the team, a player we do not have an abundance of. The answer was yes. Third question. At top level competition, in the qualifiers, has he performed? Has he done the job for us? Has he been a very good player? Three man of the matches in a row would answer that one.”

From these thoughts alone, together with Hodgson’s assertion that Wilshere is a “special player,” it’s probably fair to suggest that any doubt surrounding the pigeon-toed midfielder related solely to fitness. While others wondered whether Drinkwater’s lengthy stretch of good form should be prioritised over a combination of promise and 141 minutes of on-pitch action, Hodgson seemed oblivious to the debate. He likes Wilshere, and once the player returned to action for Arsenal late in the campaign, there was probably never any doubt that he would make his way into the squad.

And in a lot of ways, this decision is understandable. For all of the qualities attached to the other players in England’s central midfield unit, none of them offer the subtle quality of Wilshere. Most of them slightly shade him for athleticism and energy, and the likes of Adam Lallana and Dele Alli are also excellent in a technical sense, but can they dictate play in the same way that he does? Can they fizz exquisite passes to the flanks, beat opponents on the half-turn without even touching the ball and nudge those little outside-of-the-boot passes to teammates in the face of heavy pressure?

Maybe, at least at times, but not to the same level as Wilshere. Hodgson spoke to this when asked about the process of narrowing his 26-man squad to the final 23. “We don’t have lots and lots of Jack Wilsheres available,” he said. “There are other areas on the field where my choice is very great. Is he the type of player that could really help us as a starter or as a substitute because maybe he has different qualities to some of the other midfield players we’ve got? The answer was yes.”

For Hodgson, then, Wilshere is a better option than Drinkwater simply because he can deliver a point of difference in midfield. The stocky technician highlighted this with the ball at his feet in England’s recent friendly against Australia, making four successful dribbles and, from his deeper role in midfield, using the ball with precision. Wilshere played only the first half and successfully completed 22 of his 26 passes during that period, for an accuracy rating of 84.6%, a figure which was impressive given the intensity of the opposition’s pressing. He also demonstrated that trademark ability to nudge the ball to a teammate in space, even when the energetic Australian engine room tried to close him down quickly, while a couple of long balls to the right-sided Nathaniel Clyne showcased his expansive range of passing.

Yet for all of this ability to evade the Australian press and subsequently kick-start England’s attacking game, a deep-lying Wilshere isn’t the complete package. He isn’t a natural on the defensive end, and even though he’s more than happy to get stuck into a challenge, he doesn’t offer the same kind of positional awareness as someone like an Eric Dier. This, too, was on display against the Socceroos, who played a high-tempo possession game against England. That made their midfield unit difficult to track, and whereas Wilshere’s teammates struggled with other players, most notably Aaron Mooy, he struggled to contain Australia’s No. 10, Tom Rogic.

A Celtic player who has recently been linked with Arsenal, Rogic nipped into the pockets of space either side of Wilshere quite regularly. From there, the lanky playmaker gave himself the opportunity to pass, run with the ball and shoot from range, and sure, he was pretty wasteful when doing the latter, but maybe a different type of player could have prevented him from exploiting those spaces in the first place.

In fairness to Wilshere, who was substituted at half-time, England weren’t much better at keeping tabs on Rogic in the second period of play, yet this doesn’t change the fact that Hodgson still has a decision to make. Does he gamble on Wilshere in the holding role, in order to make use of his elusive attacking qualities, or does he use a lesser ball player with a greater degree of defensive acuity?

It’s a bit of a conundrum, and even for Hodgson, there seems to remain a sense of indecision. This is illustrated by the fact that he deployed Wilshere as his deepest midfielder against Australia, but decided to field Dier, a genuine holder, in that position against Turkey. Hodgson also has to decide between the 4-3-3 and the 4-4-2 diamond formations, a choice which may also influence Wilshere’s eventual spot on the pitch.

Hodgson’s line-up for England’s next friendly, to be played at Wembley Stadium against Portugal, might provide a more concrete indication of his plans, but Wilshere himself doesn’t appear to have an outward preference as to whether he plays in the holding role or somewhere slightly more advanced. He doesn’t mind, so long as he selected through the centre. “With Arsenal I have been playing out wide which is not me,” he said. “I am not a wide man but Roy seems to have faith in me in the middle so I am happy with that.

“I like to play anywhere in the middle,” he continued, speaking after England’s 2-1 win over Turkey. “I played the holding role before and I really enjoyed that and, here, I was a bit higher up the pitch and I enjoyed that too.”

The Arsenal man is therefore happy to adapt his play to either position, and while Hodgson will be left to consider his options in this regard, one thing seems pretty clear: now that Wilshere is in England’s final 23, he seems set to be a key contributor under the guidance of Hodgson.