Thursday, January 17, 2013

Wilshere excels in advanced midfield role

When Arsene Wenger's lineup for Arsenal's FA Cup replay with Swansea revealed Jack Wilshere would likely be playing as the most advanced midfielder, with Santi Cazorla shifting to the left wing, I was admittedly skeptical of the effectiveness of the change. I realize it's a shift some Arsenal fans have been calling for for some time- many believe Wilshere's best position is the #10 role and Cazorla excelled mostly as a winger prior to joining Arsenal.

However, I've always been impressed with Cazorla's clever movement and ability to find space between the opposition defense and midfield when he plays centrally off a main striker. That Wilshere is already a very good player with loads of potential is clear, but I thought the Gunners would miss Cazorla's close control and passing vision in crowded spaces around the box. Wilshere, I thought, was the archetypal box-to-box midfielder, strong in the tackle, energetic, able to beat opponents with his dribbling and possessing a wide range of passes. Playing him off of the striker, I assumed,

Wilshere injected a directness and pace into Arsenal attacks they don't possess when Cazorla plays attacking midfield. Time and again last night he was able to get the ball in the final third, turn and use his pace and skill to advance beyond Swansea's two holding midfielders. This would force one of Swansea's center backs to step to him and leave space for balls to be slotted through to Giroud, Walcott and Cazorla. A combination of poor finishing, bad luck and last ditch Swansea defending kept Arsenal off the scoreboard for 86 minutes (before Wilshere himself broke the deadlock) but Wilshere was creating good goalscoring chances seemingly at will.

Cazorla plays patiently as the #10, keeping hold of the ball and waiting for angles in which he can use his excellent vision to provide defense splitting passes. He sets a patient tempo to the Gunner's buildup play, allowing them to get numbers forward and play intricate passing combinations around the penalty area. At times this style works excellently but it can also allow the opposition time to recover into deep, compact defensive positions where they can prevent gaps from opening up for Arsenal to play balls in behind.

Wilshere's style is more explosive- he looks to receive the ball, beat a man and slip a teammate through on goal. With Wilshere as the #10, Arsenal's play in the attacking third is much more vertical and much faster. His first instinct when he gets on the ball is to face goal and run towards it. Anyone who has watched Lionel Messi knows that a central attacker who constantly looks to run towards goal at pace is a terrifying prospect. Although it would be ludicrous to compare Wilshere to the Ballon D'or winner at this stage in his career, he brings that same narrow-minded desire to get at the opponents goal Messi brings to Barcelona.

Of course this was just one game against a distracted opponent that was not at full strength. Against certain opponents Cazorla may well still be the better option at the #10 role. However, Wilshere's ability to play that position well will offer Arsenal a different option in that area of the field at a time when Cazorla's form has dropped over recent weeks. Since registering a hat trick and an assist in the Gunner's 5-2 win in December over Reading, he has just one assist and no goals in the last six games. The option of playing Wilshere higher up the field and Cazorla on a wing will allow Arsenal to alter it's approach in the final third and make them a less predictable opponent.

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