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It always felt like Jack Wilshere’s decision to leave Arsenal on loan last August was more than just a player wanting to play football more regularly.
The England midfielder, coming back after almost a full season out, played a part in two of the Gunners opening three games. He sat out the first day, but made substitute appearances in the draw with Leicester and the win over Watford. Arsene Wenger was easing him back into first team action, as you would expect.
The Arsenal manager appears to be much more cautious with recently injured players, perhaps in part because he has the squad depth to cope, but his approach to slowly get Wilshere back to match fitness was undeniably the right thing to do.
The player himself couldn’t have had any realistic expectation of being selected straight away either. After all that time out, he must have known the onus was on him to work his way back into the starting line-up on a regular basis.
Last week, Wilshere said his decision to seek a loan was made when he didn’t make the England squad for the September internationals.
“It was the final straw,” he said. “It hurt not being in there.”
But he said something more telling in the same interview, speaking about the arrival of Granit Xhaka.
“There were a lot of midfielders and the manager brought another one in,” he said. And it seems more likely that this, more than the England snub, is what saw him look to move away from the club he’s been at his entire professional career.
When a manager, especially one who has been as frugal down the years as Wenger, pays £35m for a player, chances are he’s not bringing him in to add a bit of depth to the squad. He’s been bought specifically for the first team and to play a particular role.
Wilshere probably looked at Xhaka as a left-footed, deep-lying playmaker, saw the obvious parallels with himself, and realised that his manager had found, if not necessarily a replacement, but somebody who could do the same job.
The decision then was either to stay and fight, to prove his worth at Arsenal, or take the up option of going out on loan. Some people will say that it’s a brave move to drop down, but with midfield places at the Gunners very much up for grabs, the really brave thing would have been stay and force his way back into the team.
His desire to play can’t be faulted in any way, and that he’s keeping fit and playing regularly at Bournemouth is very positive for him. Yet when this season is finished, he’ll have just 12 months left on his current deal.
It might be that a good season away will be enough for Wenger to offer new terms, but a midfield that wasn’t fully formed at the start of this campaign may well have some deep foundations by the time he returns, making it even more difficult for him to break his way into the side.
He sounds determined enough, saying this week, “I want to put myself in a position where I go back next year and I’m a better player, and I’m fitter, and I can prove to people I can play week in, week out, and I’m ready for the challenge.”
But also ready to consider his options.
“If there comes a time where I have to leave, then I have to leave, you know?”, he said.
Perhaps his decision to leave this summer was one mired in self-doubt. Could he stay fit? Could he perform to the level that’s required? Was he going to be given the chance to play? It may well be that his time at Bournemouth becomes the re-making of him as an Arsenal player, and kick-starts his career in North London.
Perhaps, though, his best chance of doing that would have been to stay in the first place.