The 21-year-old Arsenal Number 10 gave an impressive and inspired account of himself against Marseille in midweek, scoring in the first minute of the game with a fabulous strike into the top left corner of the net and then rounding off his fantastic display with a second in the second half.
The midfielder has come in for some criticism so far this season – much of reactionary – but his performance on Tuesday was impeccable and shows the capability of the player. But, crucially, does it show his capability to play on wing for Arsenal?
Arsene Wenger has a unique preference of playing many of his young central midfielders and strikers on the flanks over the years. The likes of Thierry Henry, Tomas Rosicky, Santi Cazorla and most notably Aaron Ramsey have been deployed on the flanks – the boss has explained previously that playing on the flank where there is less space and time means the player improve technically and, as we’ve seen most aptly with Ramsey who had struggled on the right wing, it does improve the player in the long run.
Henry was converted from a left winger when he initial arrived at Highbury and his technical level was greatly improved by his work on the flank – by the time he was the first-choice centre-forward he always seemed to think, move and play a step ahead of the opposition and a lot of his ‘magic’ touch and skill may well have been derived from his development as a winger.
There is a reduced amount of space on the flank – that’s just common sense – as well as the requirement for more pace, not just in terms of physical pace but a faster movement, quicker passing tempo, and more controlled first touch. In the central areas of midfield, oftentimes the player will have more time on the ball, not only to control but to pick out a pass or shift the play – the opposition are slower to close down central areas.
Likewise, the player has a greater overall view of the play from central midfield – on the flank, especially at high speed, often the player will see a red shirt (or whatever colour) and aim for that man, without being aware of a multitude of potential passes. This makes for a better passer of the ball, a better crosser of the ball and a more decisive passer, crucially, as well as a more confidence finisher as we saw with Wilshere on Tuesday.
A winger, especially, a left-footed player deployed on the right will find himself within shooting range of goal more often, coming inside off the flank, than a central midfielder will and thus the player’s finishing gets more practice and opportunity to flourish.
Wenger has stated he sees Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as a central midfielder eventually – we have seen how far Ramsey has come after his challenging experience on the flank and out of his comfort zone; the experience sharpened his first-touch, quickened his decision-making and simplified his game.
Criticism he was doing too much in the last couple of seasons since his return to fitness have been answered – his game is more intelligent, his movement and passing more efficient and I would suggest Wilshere and Oxlade-Chamberlain could very well experience much the same improvements.
Ultimately, we know all three of the Gunners young stars will be central midfielders – Theo Walcott is a winger, Serge Gnabry at least for the time being is a winger (he too could end up central), players like Mesut Ozil, Cazorla and Rosicky who are often sent out to operate the flanks are central attacking midfielders, Lukas Podolski could well end up as centre-forward once he returns from injury, and I wouldn’t be remotely surprised to see young Yaya Sanogo develop on the flank in the future.
This is the way Wenger develops his players and improves their technical level – with a baptism of fire on the flank and, judging by Jack Wilshere’s performance on Tuesday, the right wing is, for the time being, a great learning curve and opportunity for him to grow as a central midfield playmaker for Arsenal.
image: © domfell