November 22 – has it really been that long? Well, the time has just flown by?
That was Jack Wilshere's last game for Arsenal, a 2-1 defeat to Manchester United at their very own Emirates Stadium. The midfielder had been in fine form when a clumsy Paddy McNair slid in and caught Wilshere's foot under his lumbering body.
Ligaments damaged, a three-month injury lay-off was confirmed just five days later. He has undergone surgery that would rule him out for three months. Arsenal fans were gutted. Wilshere had finally been getting back to his best following a number of similar setbacks.
An upturn in form
When he went down under that clumsy – did I mention it was clumsy already? – challenge Arsenal were languishing in eighth place having dropped 15 points behind leaders Chelsea in the space of 12 games.
Three months later and the form is closer to what we expect from the Gunners. Good, but not excellent. Notably, they are one point closer to the league leaders than they were on November 22. They're still not going to win the title, of course, but it is indicative of how much better Arsenal have been playing.
Two key players
There are two reasons behind Arsenal's upturn in form. One if the emergence of Francis Coquelin as an important first-team player. He has been the link between defence and midfield that Arsenal have longed for. Arsene Wenger handed him a four-year contract and he looks set to see out the season as a first team regular.
The second is the revolutionary idea of putting Santi Cazorla in midfield. The diminutive Spaniard has been superb in this position, linking midfield and attack with flowing, accurate passes. Wenger today claimed that the 30-year-old had been Arsenal's most consistent player this season. Alexis Sanchez aside, he has probably been their best player as well.
Neither of them can be dropped. Arsenal have finally found some balance and they are hardly in a position to start experimenting. The race for fourth place is on with five teams gunning for two places. It's serious business and Arsenal know they can't afford to miss out.
That is bad news for Wilshere, who, as suggested above, has not really been missed since he last left the field in late autumn. The 23-year-old is fit for Arsenal's trip to Crystal Palace, but is likely to be eased back into action.
The damning statistics
But the worry for Wilshere will be whether he will get back into the Arsenal team at all. Without him Arsenal have won 70 per cent of their Premier League games and reached the FA Cup quarter-finals.
Before his injury Arsenal scored 20 goals in 12 games and conceded 15. In the subsequent 13 games they have scored 27 and conceded 13. It is an all-round improvement that has come directly from balancing attack with defence in the midfield area.
A small chance
Aaron Ramsey, who, at the moment, is on the short-term injury list with a hamstring strain, has even sacrificed the goals in return for more defensive work. The Welshman has not been the spectacular scorer he was last season, but he is one of the most industrious midfielder's in the league, regularly topping charts for distance covered in a game.
So long as Ramsey can shake off this minor problem, he will return to the Arsenal squad in time for Arsenal's away tie against Manchester United. It is the kind of game you want passionate homegrown lads like Wilshere playing, but for now there is simply no place for him in this Arsenal squad.
Wenger could force him in, but in such testing times, there is no room for experimentation. Unless he can rekindle the kind of form he hasn't shown consistently since 2011, Wilshere's season is over.
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