By Graham Ruthven
After the loss of Robin Van Persie last summer, this season was supposed to be the year Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere finally came to the fore as Arsenal’s marquee stars. But while one looks likely to finish as the Gunner’s top scorer, the other finds himself the subject of a fiercely debated question: are Arsenal better without Wilshere? Or more specifically, are they better with Tomáš Rosický?
The purest comparison between the two sees Arsenal’s win percentage with Wilshere at 53 per cent, and at 56 per cent with Rosický. Of course, there are a number of variables that need to be accounted for. Wilshere tends to be Wenger’s preferred option against higher standard of opposition, where it is naturally more difficult to impose on the game.
But with the Gunners currently on an eight-game unbeaten run which has included clashes with Manchester United and Everton of which Rosický started five and Wilshere two (Santi Cazorla was deployed in the central attacking midfield position against Swansea), there is a case to be made that Rosický is better suited to the team Wilshere was once said to be made for.
The signing of Mikel Arteta from Everton two years ago means Arsenal need Wilshere, arguably their most technically gifted player, to be an attacking midfielder rather than the pivot in the centre of the field.
Wilshere has yet to show he can translate the energy and power he possesses in central midfield into a more advanced position. Until he can, Rosický appears to be the better option.
If Wenger wants to stick with his somewhat rigid 4-2-3-1 formation with Arteta and Aaron Ramsey as the central midfield platform, there appears to be little space for Wilshere.
Wilshere’s reputation as a box-to-box midfielder has also been called into question this season, with his defensive weaknesses exposed by the loss of Alex Song as a midfield partner.
Instead, Rosický appears to be better equipped and more at ease with the attacking midfield role Wenger needs him to fulfill. Somewhat surprisingly, Rosický even holds his own from a defensive perspective, recovering the ball 14 times against both Man Utd and QPR.
His sly movement and creative thinking has defined much of Arsenal best attacking play in the second half of the season. It’s the kind of influence that’s difficult to capture in statistics. At times he has encapsulated everything Arsenal need from the most advanced member of their midfield three.
The best demonstration of how effective Rosický can be in the central attacking midfield role came in the 2-1 win over West Brom last month. Indeed, the Czech scored both goals in the win but it was his performance elsewhere that impressed and somewhat surprised.
It is Rosický’s understanding with Cazorla that provides Arsenal with a dynamic, yet advanced, midfield platform, when the two play together and Arsenal’s opening goal at The Hawthorns illustrated this.
Cazorla took up a more central position, allowing Rosický to overlap on his left side. A square pass into the centre of midfield saw Arteta release Gervinho over the top, who came off the right wing and across the opposition defence.
Gervinho’s run afforded space for Rosický to exploit through the middle, heading home the cross-come-shot. It was the brand of intricate attacking move Arsenal have become renowned for under Wenger, but have executed all too rarely this season.
In fact, Rosický almost embodies what Arsene Wenger wants his Arsenal side to be; stylish, intelligent and energetic. Put simply, he moves Arsenal closer to Wenger’s ideal.
Positional heat maps show that when Wilshere plays in the attacking midfield role, he and Cazorla congest the same area of the pitch. Both are trained to exploit the same spaces, meaning Arsenal often reduce the size of the playing area by playing both players, something that betrays Wenger’s philosophy at the club.
Arsenal seem to struggle with the imbalance Wilshere brings to their line-up. The difficulty Wenger faces is whether to play him behind a central striker and discount his lack of creativity in attack, or deploy him as a midfield pivot where his mobility and dynamism is lost.
Despite Rosický’s slightly deeper starting position, the Czech’s goal threat appears more concise than Wilshere’s, finding the net three times in just 14 appearances, compared to just two in 32 for Wilshere.
Rosický also leads Wilshere in terms of attacking third pass completion rate, with 82 per cent compared to the Englishman’s 75 per cent, setting a fast tempo in line with the Arsenal identity.
Wenger may well have stumbled across Rosický as the attacking midfield dynamo Arsenal have lacked for much of the season, wary of rushing Wilshere back from injury, but although the Czech might be a temporary solution, for the moment he is the right one.