It did not take long for some people at West Ham to develop doubts about the wisdom of signing Jack Wilshere. The misplaced early optimism soon ebbed away and the grumbling began midway through last season, with the mood summed up by one figure muttering about how long was left on Wilshere’s contract and wondering whether West Ham should think about finding a way to part company with a player on a three-year deal worth close to £100,000 a week.
Wilshere was out with an ankle injury at the time and had made one brief substitute appearance since being substituted during the 1-0 home defeat by Wolves on September 1, 2018, by which point the fanfare that greeted the midfielder’s arrival from Arsenal last summer was already starting to look a little overblown. The England international was a starter as West Ham lost their opening four league games and it spoke volumes that the team’s form improved only after he was sidelined, forcing Manuel Pellegrini to give his midfield a more robust feel.
It had been Pellegrini who pushed for Wilshere to be handed a three-year contract, even though others felt a one-year deal would be more appropriate for a player who did not make it out for the second half of last weekend’s draw with Brighton after being withdrawn for tactical reasons. At the moment there is little to counter the evidence that the gamble has backfired.
But why throw the dice in the first place? You might think that a club scarred by Andy Carroll’s six injury-hit years would have trodden more carefully, but there was also a desire to back Pellegrini in his first transfer window as West Ham’s manager. The Chilean loves a creative player. When his midfield was criticized after a 2-1 defeat by Bournemouth in August last year, Pellegrini raised eyebrows by comparing Wilshere to Andrea Pirlo.
He also insisted that he was not worried about Wilshere’s injury problems, revealing that West Ham had devised a training regime for him, but those comments felt hollow when the England international underwent ankle surgery in September of last year.
Wilshere made his comeback as a late substitute in the 3-0 away win at Newcastle in early December, only to miss a home game against Cardiff three days later. Another ankle problem, Pellegrini said. More time wasted. More false hope. There would be three more substitute appearances before the campaign was over.
Which brings us to this season and Pellegrini’s determination to give Wilshere an important role. The 27-year-old had a decent pre-season and is paying for a physiotherapist to fly over from Ireland to give him private fitness sessions twice a week, but it remains obvious why Unai Emery did not go to great lengths to keep him at Arsenal when his contract expired.
With Mark Noble out with a thigh strain, Wilshere partnered Declan Rice in West Ham’s first two games and has not come close to lasting the distance. He went off with a dead leg during the 5-0 home defeat by Manchester City, having made no impact during his 56 minutes on the pitch, and he was badly off the pace in the 1-1 draw at Brighton, completing 10 passes before making way for Michail Antonio. What Antonio lacks in technique he makes up for with pace and power, qualities that make him an effective player in an environment as physically demanding as the Premier League, and his introduction led to an improvement.
Being generous, the season is young and there is time for Wilshere to shed the rust by getting more matches under his belt. His undoubted class could yet rise to the surface and it is impossible not to wish him well. With Wilshere, so full of boyish enthusiasm every time he steps on the pitch, there is always that romantic hope of seeing him rediscover the spark that allowed him to dominate Pep Guardiola’s great Barcelona side in a Champions League tie in 2011.
That game took place more than eight years ago. There are dreams and there is cold reality. The Premier League becomes faster every year, as Wilshere acknowledged after the City game, and West Ham remain as porous in defense as last season.
It raises concerns about Pellegrini’s approach. He wants to attack, yet questions are being asked about why he spent a significant chunk of his summer budget on Pablo Fornals, another attacking midfielder, when West Ham were crying out for more strength in the middle. They needed another ball-winner to take some of the load off Rice after selling Pedro Obiang.
Instead, West Ham find themselves devoting considerable time and money into trying to kickstart Wilshere’s career. Meanwhile, they have failed to invest in improving problem positions such as full-back and central midfield. It is a costly indulgence for a side hoping to climb out of mid-table and if you want to know how much longer they will be carrying Wilshere, take a look at his contract. It runs until the summer of 2021.
The Guardian Sport