(This piece was written before the Capital One Cup tie between Sheffield Wednesday and Arsenal).
Whatever the arguments about the quality of the old versus new, it can be agreed that the sport of football has definitely become faster, demanding much higher standards of fitness from its players. It is also true that the science as well as quality of infrastructure available to those practising professional sport and those training them is of a far higher standard than in previous years. But who is to blame when a player is plagued by recurrent injuries? There isn’t a one-fits-all magical formula, but the answers lie with a combination of factors – the player’s inherent tendencies and weaknesses, the medical and physiotherapy staff treating him, the training methods and the nature of the injuries.
However, this piece isn’t about how to manage injuries better, or about those players who have put terrible injuries behind them to forge ahead, or even those who could never go back to their best after a big injury. Rather it discusses two massive young talents whose careers have so far been blighted by frequent injuries, but who still have the possibility of second or even third chances when it comes to living up to their true potential.
In June 2006, a 16 year old Brazilian wonderkid was signed by Sport Club Internacional to compete in the Campeonato Brasileiro sub-20. Alexandre Rodrigues da Silva or “Pato” (funnily enough, el pato means duck in Spanish) quickly surpassed expectations and went on to be included in the Internacional squad that won the 2006 FIFA Club World Cup, becoming the youngest ever player to score in a FIFA-organised competition. He was only 17 years and 102 days, surpassing Pele’s long-standing record of 17 years and 239 days from back in 1958.
A year later, he was officially signed by AC Milan, though he couldn’t make his debut until a few months later because of regulations pertaining to a non-EU minor. With a very quick, creative South American flair, combined with good technique and a keen eye for goal, the youngster went from strength to strength. Though not the tallest or most physical of players, he seemed as comfortable in the air as when he was dribbling the ball, strong and versatile. It was no surprise when he became the Brazilian to receive the Serie A Young Footballer of the Year award in 2009.
In February 2010, he scored a brace vs Atalanta, but had to limp off in the second half due to a hamstring injury. Thus began a battle with recurring injuries (mostly focused around his hamstring and thigh areas) that has so far prevented him from fulfilling his true potential as one of the best strikers in the world. Pato continued to score goals whenever fit, but his lengthy spells on the injury table meant that he always had to start almost from scratch on his return and it took a toll on his fitness, pace and movement.
Now at the age of 26, the Brazilian, who moved to Corinthians in early 2013, finds himself on loan at Sao Paolo, trying to rebuild a once promising career. There are reports that Manchester United, among others, are interested in buying the striker in the January 2016 transfer window. It would be a shame if Pato’s considerable talents were not allowed one more chance to prove their merit on an international stage, especially since he is still at an age when footballers are supposed to be at their peak – and recent signs have shown that he might well be on his way back to his best. Until then, I will leave you to enjoy this clip of him scoring versus the mighty Barcelona in the Champions League.
Closer to home is a similar case that I hope will end happier sooner. Jack Wilshere. The narratives are fairly similar when it comes to the main points. An extremely promising youngster (albeit a midfielder as opposed to a striker like Pato) who rose through the junior ranks and made a mark early on in his fledging career, only to fall prey to chronic injuries that have sorely limited his time on the pitch so far.
In September 2008, Wilshere, an Arsenal Academy graduate, become the youngest Arsenal debutante in the league at the age of 16 years and 256 days, and later the 10th youngest debutante for the senior English national team. In January 2009, he signed his first professional contract with Arsenal, also playing a crucial role in the 2009 Youth FA Cup victory for the club.
A diminutive lad, not dissimilar to Pato, Wilshere has always had a hot, extremely passionate streak in him, a physicality that was only sharpened when he was sent on loan to the Bolton Wanderers in early 2010. Those few months saw him mature and be ready for the challenges of consistently competing in the Arsenal first-team as well as making his debut for the Three Lions. He got a chance to do that during the 2010-2011 season where he spent a lot of match-time as a holding midfielder alongside Alex Song. An impressive showing meant that hopes were high for his performances in the 2011-2012 season. But an ankle stress-fracture during an Emirates Cup pre-season friendly against the New York Red Bulls saw him require surgery and a long rehabilitation.
In the following seasons, Wilshere has continued to feature and shine whenever he’s played (he was handed the number 10 shirt after Van Persie’s ungraceful departure), but he has spent more time on the sidelines than on the pitch. It hasn’t of course helped that he is a target for opposition player tackles and physicality because of his quality, personality and combative style of play. It is also true that this style means that he rushes into physical duels with players, further increasing his risk of injury. However, decisions like the one that allowed him to play on against Denmark in the international friendly back in 2014 even after he’d picked up a knock and hobbled off for treatment should be questioned. The midfielder sustained a broken bone in his left foot from that encounter which effectively ended his involvement in the rest of Arsenal’s season.
The most recent has been an operation to his left fibula, just when he seemed to show signs of taking it to the next level on the pitch. This brought about a rare meltdown in the Arsenal Twitter world (Oh who am I kidding?) with many stating that his career was over and he was fulfilling all the requirements to be the next Diaby (one of the most painful what-might-have-beens for Gooners). That perhaps the club medical and physio staff were missing something (I notice that many have stopped talking about the Shad effect, though I’m in no doubt about his expertise) and that our rehab processes needed to be reassessed.
While it is true that Wenger recently admitted to maybe overplaying Wilshere as a youngster, I choose to believe that he will overcome this and we will be able to enjoy the player we know he can become on a consistent basis. Remember a certain Dutchman with the little boy inside of him? I’m not saying Wilshere’s going to stab us in the back, but if I remember correctly, Van Persie also spent a large portion of his career on the injury table before coming good in a massive way. (His post-Arsenal injuries are his own comeuppance, if I may humbly suggest)
There is also the example of his England and Arsenal team-mate, Theo Walcott, who has been successfully rehabilitated post his ACL injury, and seems to be fitter and stronger than before, when he did seem a bit injury-prone. The way it was done was in increments. Theo was eased into the first team and regular action (20 minutes here, half an hour there) without rushing into anything. Similar was the eventual case of a certain Aaron Ramsey post his horrific injury in February 2010. These should hopefully serve as good blueprints for Wilshere’s comeback. (And this is where I trust Shad)
When fit and on form, there is none like our Jack with his dynamism, passing, movement, vision, leadership abilities and sheer guts (I need only remind you of that Barcelona win). He also adds that extra dimension and presence to the Arsenal midfield that is at times found missing. But with so many stops and starts, it shouldn’t be that his development lags behind his teammates and his intense potential is never fulfilled. Or that other players become crucial for positions he should ideally be challenging for. But he is still young and his spirit is no other. Like with Pato, the football romantic in me hopes that there is a happy ending, and I’m sure that fellow admirers of the beautiful game will agree.