After 16 months out, can Jack Wilshere spark misfiring Arsenal into life?
The calls for Jack Wilshere to be recalled after a 16-month lay-off through injury will reach a crescendo tomorrow. After two dispiriting defeats and an acrimonious club AGM, Arsenal need a lift when they face QPR at the Emirates and the England midfielder is precisely the man.
Arsène Wenger's team were witless in the middle as they suffered serious setbacks against Norwich City and Schalke, barely creating a single good goal-scoring chance in 180 minutes of slow, ponderous play.
Wilshere has just completed another full game for the Arsenal Under-21s and would be the perfect antidote, adding creative coherence and renewed hope for disgruntled fans. Wenger appears more inclined to use the 20-year-old off the bench after his ankle, heel and knee problems, saying only yesterday: "I have to consider him. We'll make a decision tomorrow."
But the potential impact Wilshere could make if he feels fit enough and is given enough time should not be underestimated. With his dancing feet and his Gascoigne-burst, the midfielder can set the angles and tempo of attack in a period when Santi Cazorla has been swamped and the team blunted.
As good as Aaron Ramsey's touch and vision are, Wilshere is so much more assertive. Not many English players combine bravery with technical skill, but Wilshere is perhaps the most obvious to do so since Wayne Rooney.
"They are similar types, yes," said Wenger. "Jack is a guy you can give balls to, to create openings with his passing."
If Wilshere returns, it will feel like a very different one from that in which he last played. Before his first ankle injury, in that collapsing end of the 2010-11 season, Arsenal still had Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and Alex Song. The main men now are Mikel Arteta and Cazorla, neither of whom Wilshere has played with.
Wenger, though, was relaxed about Wilshere's ability to adjust. "Good players like to play with each other," he said last week. "Cazorla came here and, straight away, after 10 minutes training everybody understood he is a great player. So the easiest way to find good combinations is to play together."
Such a long absence could cause unforeseen problems but Wilshere has been making good progress, improving with each appearance.
Having returned to training in mid-September, Wilshere played 62 tiring minutes at the Hawthorns on 1 October. A week later, he played 74 minutes for the under-21s against Reading at Barnet and was much better, making both goals in a 2-0 win.
Emmanuel Frimpong, Wilshere's best friend at Arsenal, joked after the West Bromwich Albion game that he had kicked Wilshere in training to toughen him up. "He might have done at that stage," said the reserves coach Terry Burton. "But I'm not sure he's going to catch him now."
Since then Wilshere has played 90 minutes in a friendly against Chelsea and then on Monday afternoon, in a 2-1 win at Everton when he was again involved in both goals. He was booked too, and while everyone would rather tackles were clean, his fearlessness is something Arsenal need more of.
By last Friday Wenger said that Wilshere was tackling with all his old enthusiasm. "We even have to calm him down," he said. "He goes for every challenge and has no apprehension."
Fear, the Frenchman insists, simply will not be a factor. "If you protect the ball and somebody tackles you from behind and kills your knee, when you come back it will be difficult to protect the ball in the same position," Wenger said. "Jack has none of that. He has not been injured in a specific tackle." And asked if Wilshere can fully recover, Wenger said: "It is not possible, it is certain. He will be a better player. If you have this kind of injury at the age of 20 you will take off again and move forward normally. At his age it is no problem."