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Heart Of Football

Wenger hopes Wilshere will return fitter and even better

The player who might have won today's English Premier League contest between Arsenal and Bournemouth - for either side - will be no more than a face in the crowd.

Jack Wilshere is fitter than he has been for two years, but he is in the limbo of being a loan player. Arsenal own his registration, and have done so since he was nine years of age. Bournemouth have borrowed him for this season, but are not allowed to field him against his parent club.

Arsenal are by no means prolific in working the loan player loophole. The Gunners have five players - goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny (Roma), Calum Chambers (Middlesbrough), Joel Campbell (Sporting Lisbon), Takuma Asano (Stuttgart) and Wilshere - out on loan.

Chelsea have 37.

Wilshere is a curious case because his stated dream is to captain Arsenal, and Arsene Wenger, who has managed every stage of his development, backed him to do not only that, but to skipper England too.

But time is passing. Wilshere turns 25 in the New Year. If, and only if, he plays consistently in the Premiership - if and only if he sidesteps the ankle and other lower limb injuries that have dogged him - can either ambition be realised.

Jack Wilshere, on loan from Arsenal, on the ball for Bournemouth. He will not feature against his parent club today - as he could be the match winner for the Cherries, or make a mistake to give the Gunners three points.
Jack Wilshere (right), on loan from Arsenal, on the ball for Bournemouth. He will not feature against his parent club today – as he could be the match winner for the Cherries, or make a mistake to give the Gunners three points. PHOTO: REUTERS

Right now, he has completed three full 90 minutes for the first time since the autumn of 2014. He has been Jack the Lad at times in his private life, prone to partying where there is drinking.

On the pitch, his all action box-to-box style, and fearlessness at "putting the foot in", probably contributed to his habit of getting injured just when things were flying for him.

Wenger has not abandoned Wilshere. Far from it. The manager stays respectfully out of the picture while he trusts Eddie Howe (a young version of himself and Monsieur Wenger's potential successor when the longest serving manager in Europe moves upstairs or out of the Emirates) to oversee his recuperation down at Bournemouth.

The rule that a loan player does not play against his owner-club is a sound one. Imagine if Wilshere were injured, against Arsenal. Imagine if he made an error that allowed the Gunners to win three vital points in the race for the EPL title.

Imagine the suspicion, the pollution of publicity that would be exploited in the media if, perish the thought, Wilshere was seen to share a handshake or a cuddle with players he has been raised to regard as his Arsenal "brothers".

The waste is sad, but inevitable.

Wenger has not abandoned Wilshere. Far from it. The manager stays respectfully out of the picture while he trusts Eddie Howe to oversee his recuperation down at Bournemouth.

Wilshere has said that he hopes Bournemouth win at the Emirates. Well, he should. "That's normal," observed Wenger. "When you are committed to a club, you have to do well in that season. You can't say you want your team to lose the game."

Indeed no, perish the thought.

Wenger also shrugs off the suggestion that Wilshere is in a position to pass on inside information to his new, if temporary, colleagues at Bournemouth.

"That is also normal," he suggests. "But it will not decide the result of the game."

Other managers talk all the time about thin margins, and about minute factors that can swing a tight game.

Other managers might fear the return, even in a non-playing capacity, of a player who has been integral to the Arsenal way ever since he was persuaded to switch clubs from Luton Town.

Yes, even at nine, the competition was there. The scouts knew that this was one local boy who might, just might, be a match someday for the likes of Mesut Ozil (who Wilshere greatly admires), Alexis Sanchez (whose running Wilshere might pick out with a pass) and Theo Walcott (who for years grew up with Jack in the Arsenal and England XIs).

Come next season, when Wenger and Wilshere make their decisions about the future, all of that could be back on.

Today it is relevant only in Wilshere's enforced absence from either side.

A week ago, when Bournemouth won away at Stoke, Wilshere was by everyone's opinion the game changer. "Jack has got better every week with us," Howe said. "He was the key link between our midfield and attack last week, also his defensive display was superb, and underrated."

"Yes," agreed Wenger. "I leave him to deal with his manager, but every week I ask how did he play? I watch on television. I'm happy that he hasn't had any injuries since he left us. Obviously I know when a player like Jack is in top form, you miss him always."

He went to Bournemouth because he asked to go where he might get more games in his redevelopment after such a long and painful series of injuries. Wenger agreed because it was Bournemouth, and because he has more options in Wilshere's position than he can field in any one game.

Around the Emirates, it is customary to ask whether Jack or Xhaka - a reference to the Swiss-Albanian Granit Xhaka, who was purchased from Borussia Monchengladbach last summer for S$55 million.

Wenger regards Xhaka as being in hard-working adaptation to the demands in English football. The manager once described Wilshere a player "with Spanish technique but an English heart".

But Wenger sees differences between Jack and Xhaka. Where Wilshere is box-to-box, Xhaka operates deeper, getting the ball off the central defenders and circulating it through the midfield.

Arsenal's flying start has stalled. The team haven't lost in 18 games, but draws against Spurs, Manchester United and Paris St-Germain have stemmed the momentum and, Wenger admits, lacked creative sharpness to turn consistency into victories.

He let Wilshere go because he has core midfield players fitter than Wilshere.

Francis Coquelin, Mohamed Elneny, Xhaka or even Aaron Ramsey are decent alternatives. But the player Arsenal miss most is Santi Cazorla. The Spaniard is pint sized, but has an immense range of pin-point passing, movement and creativity.

He has missed the last seven games with an Achilles tendon injury. Wenger makes do with the others, but today, at least, the man with "Spanish technique and an English heart" will not return to embarrass him.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 27, 2016, with the headline 'Wenger hopes Wilshere will return fitter and even better'. Print Edition | Subscribe