Against Switzerland, Jack Wilshere was placed in a holding role alongside Fabian Delph and Jordan Henderson. Jack did alright, while not necessarily getting acclaim, he certainly wasn't at fault for any major mistakes and England did look good against a decent Swiss side. Of course, Jack has no history of playing in such a position with either England or Arsenal, so an unremarkable game could well be considered a good sign. After the 2-nil victory over Switzerland, Jack Wilshere had a few thoughts on how he could look to improve in his new holding role.
"I enjoyed it," he said. "It is the first time I’ve ever played there for club or country. I look at the game and there are some negatives, obviously.
"I looked at the players who play that regularly in midweek, Pirlo, Mascherano, Gerrard – the best players in the world who play that position perfectly.
"I will look at them over the next few months and look at this game. I’ll take negatives, there were some positives as well, and I will get better in that position."
So, Jack Wilshere wants to specifically look at how Pirlo, Mascherano, and Gerrard play as holding midfielders. I don't think it's too much of a stretch to say that he plans on modeling his game on one of them, or somehow combine different elements from these players for his own game.
So the question is, will this actually work, and will it actually help England?
I am a bit of a skeptic. But we should probably start off with a look at how exactly the likes of Mascherano and Pirlo play (I do not actually think Gerrard is particularly good at this role, so I'm trimming him out, here.)
So, looking at some stats from WhoScored, we will look at a few things that I think of when I consider a holding midfielder role: passing accuracy, long balls, defensive contribution, and offensive contribution. I expect a holding midfielder to be exceptionally neat in passing. Holding players often serve as tempo keepers and attack starters, so they receive the ball a lot. In addition, their position directly in front of the back line presents a potential problem if they are dispossessed or pass the ball to the opposition. Long balls appear to be something of a key trademark for holding players - how well can the player splay the ball back and forth across the pitch to stretch the opposition, both vertically and horizontally? Playing in a deeper position allows the likes of Pirlo to both see the whole of the field and pick a pass, while staying away from the congestion and danger of the opposition's heavy tacklers. A defensive contribution is not always necessarily. Mascherano is a fantastic defensive player, as evidenced at the most recent World Cup, but Pirlo is well noted as something of a defensive liability. I think England will need more of the former due to a lack of sufficiently strong and skilled defensive midfielders to cover a lack of defensive contribution. And finally, attacking contribution. Or, rather, the absence of it. What does it say if a holding midfielder is completing crosses and dribbles and shots? That he's out of position. A proper holding midfielder does not deliver a direct attacking contribution, but, instead, orchestrates the attack from the back.
Here's a look on each part for both Pirlo and Mascherano
Pirlo gets a ton of passes. In a bad season (or collection of games), he's getting a bit over 50. On a particularly good stretch of games, he can approach 90. He's also almost always completing 85% of those passes at the least (over a stretch of games). In those games, Pirlo gets a high number of Key passes (whatever that means. I'll take it to mean directly leading to a shot), consistently averaging 2 or more key passes per game each season.
Mascherano isn't quite as excellent a passer, but he's still pretty effective. He tends to average 50+ per season. In this past World Cup, he averaged over 82 passes per game, which is absolutely shocking. (I will be particularly looking at his World Cup numbers since he plays so much in defense). Pass accuracy? We are looking at or around 90% (but that's going to be affected by his numbers at center back).
Pirlo's way off his game if he's not getting 8 accurate long balls per game.
Mascherano consistently hits 7 or more with Barcelona, averaging a jaw-dropping 10.6 with Argentina this past summer.
Pirlo tends to have between 2 and 3 combined tackles and interceptions per game. He's not really making clearances or blocks, and he gets dribbled past at least once a game, on average.
Mascherano, on the other hand, is a defensive beast. He averaged 4.3 tackles a game and 2.6 interceptions. Mascherano has a sub 1 average for times dribbled past per game. The Argentine regularly resorts to emergency defensive maneuvers, making nearly 2 clearances per game in the World Cup, and .9 blocked shots.
Clearly, Pirlo and Mascherano offer two different models in terms of defensive contribution. Pirlo doesn't contribute nearly as much, defensively, while Mascherano appears to primarily be a shield for the back line.
Pirlo, while not a direct offensive threat, still contributes offensively. He collects a handful of assists each season. He also collects a few goals (though I assume many of these are from free kicks). In addition, he makes quite a few key passes (not sure what that entails, but I am led to assume a key pass (eventually) leads to a shot, though if he is only getting a few assists, than these aren't directly leading to shots or the shots being taken are being missed... a lot) with an average of 2 or more a game. These stats (in combination with Pirlo's reputation as an free kick specialist) suggest a player who only rarely ventures forward.
Mascherano basically has no clear offensive contribution. It doesn't look like he's scored at all in the past 5 years.
Pirlo is a player who receives the ball a ton. He makes an absurd number of passes, orchestrating the attack. He also pitches in with the occasional goal and assist, but the numbers suggest that he is positionally sound. Pirlo also has only a small contribution to defense, which would necessitate players assisting him in shielding the back line.
Mascherano is a sort of foil for Pirlo. He has no clear offensive contribution, but, instead, offers a tremendous amount, defensively. While he doesn't make quite as many passes, he is still a central hub for the team. Mascherano's clear lack of offensive numbers indicate that he is much more likely to remain back and cover.
Now, does any of this actually sound like Jack Wilshere?
Short answer; No.
On his best days, the Englishman makes half as many accurate long balls. His pass completion percentage is pretty good at above 80%, but he very rarely gets close to 50 passes, even with an Arsenal side that is pretty reliant on lots of accurate short passes. Wilshere's defensive contribution looks to be worse than Pirlo's. And Wilshere's comparatively high attacking contribution indicates that he wants to be higher up the pitch. Against Switzerland, Wilshere made fewer than 50 passes, had only an 82% completion rate, only completed 2 long balls, and only tried 2 more (what's worse, not doing the play, or failing in completing it?) Jack had one tackle and 1 interception.
I wouldn't pin too much hope on Wilshere becoming England's starting holding player. It's not currently his skill set, and, if he is to play there, he will need to do a lot of learning. And Arsenal's not going to play him there. England would be lucky to see Wilshere get consistent minutes in the middle, at all. With a full squad, Jack starts on the bench. And his best performances have come when playing on the right as a midfielder who comes inside and helps in possession and eventual creation of chances. Wilshere is just too much of a liability to depend on consistent defensive efforts. Or, rather, his tendency to play like a caffeinated terrier, running around the field, chasing the ball is a defensive liability. In fact, I'd be worried that WIlshere didn't realize that he should model his game after his own team's stellar holding midfielder - Mikel Arteta. Making himself a replacement for the aging (but fantastic... seriously, he has phenomenal pass completion and defensive numbers) Spaniard would hopefully have helped Jack get more playing time, helped Arsenal cover a position they need reinforcing, and helped England.
I certainly hope Jack figures out where to slot into the English national team, but I have some serious reservations that it will be as a holding midfielder.