Jack Wilshere: Back in action
With an injury-hit season firmly behind him, Sam Rider meets a rebuilt and recharged Jack Wilshere ahead of a pivotal year in his career for club and country
Jack Wilshere is ready for launch. Poised beside a giant crash mat, he’s winding up to leap into an acrobatic scissor kick in front of the MF cameras. For a young man who spent a large portion of the 2014-15 Premier League season injured, he’s throwing himself into action with remarkable abandon.
It’s characteristic of how the courageous midfielder goes about his business on the pitch for Arsenal and England – at times to his team and his body’s detriment. But he has no intention of changing the way he plays. ‘I don’t want to adjust my game because that’s who I am,’ he says, when MF meets him on the eve of Arsenal’s penultimate Premier League match of the season against Sunderland.
“I don’t want to adjust my game because that’s who I am”
Nor should he. As he rightly attests, most of his injuries have resulted from opponents’ fouling him, unable to shackle Wilshere as he surges past them. His combination of close control, vision and a combative, tenacious style of play in both attack and defence marked him out as a star of the future when he burst into the Arsenal first team aged just 16.
Now, aged 23, Wilshere is approaching crunch time in his career. While last season was a relatively quiet one for him on the pitch, with just nine league starts, off it he’s been working tirelessly to get back to his best and fulfil his undoubted potential – as demonstrated by the impressive abs he reveals at the MF shoot.
HARD CORE SUPPORT
Wilshere’s standout season to date came in 2010-11. He racked up 49 club appearances, outshone the otherworldly Argentine Lionel Messi in a 2-1 Champions League first-leg win over Barcelona and was voted PFA Young Player of the Year. He also made his international debut, becoming the tenth youngest player ever to play for the senior England team. Since then, despite amassing 27 caps for his country, he’s been dogged by constant ankle injuries – he missed the entire 2011-12 season after a fracture was discovered during preseason – but he recognises every setback as an opportunity to come back stronger.
‘When I first got injured my core strength was terrible,’ Wilshere says between keepie-ups. ‘I was 18, playing three times a week and didn’t really do any gym work. All of a sudden when you’re injured you realise everything revolves around your core. It’s crucial for balance and absorbing impact. The first thing my physios got me to work on was my balance.’
The Arsenal physiotherapy staff got him to start simple. ‘I had to stand on one leg and close my eyes,’ says Wilshere. ‘I couldn’t do it.’ Once he got the hang of it and could keep his balance for 30 seconds, he progressed to doing the same thing on a Bosu ball, then introduced throwing and catching medicine balls – presumably with his eyes open. ‘It made a big difference when I came back to full fitness,’ he says.
Wilshere uses this drill as part of a tailored routine that he’s constantly developing. The day before a match, he starts with stretching and foam rolling to improve his ankle and calf mobility. After a team meeting and a short, sharp training session of keep- ball, he does a 20-minute power workout involving box jumps and loaded jump squats. ‘I work on my speed and strength every day,’ he says. ‘I do a lot of work on my first five yards. For a footballer that’s really important.’ To finish, he works on his chiselled rock-solid core with his eight- minute abs session of planks, med ball press-ups and Russian twists. As part of injury rehab he uses a vicious max power output 5km Wattbike challenge to top up his stamina.
Wilshere’s core and balance might initially have needed work, but power is one asset he’s always had in spades, allowing him to always play in older age groups as he rose through Arsenal’s youth ranks to the first team. But at senior level, and especially after injury, it’s much tougher for your fitness to reach the heights demanded by the most physical of Europe’s top leagues.
‘The intensity of the Premier League is incredible,’ says Wilshere. ‘The levels of fitness you have to reach just to survive in it is absurd. When you’re out for a few months it’s tough to come back. It takes a lot of work in the gym with the physios, the specialists, you’re willing to try anything that will help you get fit.’
He’s undoubtedly in the right place. When French manager Arsène Wenger arrived at Arsenal in 1996 – five years before Wilshere joined the Arsenal Academy at the age of nine – he quickly cleared out an entrenched drinking culture at the club. In its place came experts to improve the players’ nutrition, fitness training and rehabilitation that brought with it a period of sustained domestic success.
The latest addition is American Shad Forsythe, who joined from the backroom staff of the 2014 World Cup-winning German national team as the new head of performance. Fitness is one of the key areas in which Wenger and Arsenal aim to find an edge over their competition and Forsythe’s influence is considerable.
During the World Cup, the German players on average covered 120.9km per game; in comparison, their Brazilian semi-final opponents covered 106.8km. (England managed 106.3km per match, despite playing four fewer games.) Forsythe has brought several of the initiatives that worked for Germany to London Colney, Arsenal’s training ground.
Every player is monitored with GPS and heart rate monitors in each training session, followed by detailed analysis of each individual and how they work as a team. Players are given nutrient-dense food prepared by expert chefs, which they can also have as takeaway dinners after training, and each player is also given an individually tailored fitness regimen.
“The level of fitness you need to survive is absurd”
‘Training used to be long, hard double sessions for the whole team,’ Wilshere says. ‘Now training is more positional- based. Midfielders do one drill, defenders and attackers another. Training is more intelligent.’ Identifying potential injury issues before they materialise is also key. ‘We get weighed every week,’ says Wilshere, who is 76kg and 7.8% body fat. ‘We get regular DEXA scans to check our muscle mass and body fat levels. There’s no hiding place.’
Rather than simply to keep checks on the players’ diets – ‘I haven’t eaten junk food since I was 11 but I’m not teetotal, I have a drink maybe once a month,’ Wilshere says – these tests provide early warning signs for any issues that could sideline them later in the season. ‘It’s like running a virus scan on the human operating system,’ said Mark Verstegen, Forsythe’s mentor and former colleague at athlete performance centre EXOS, in an interview with the Guardian. ‘It helps address inefficient movement patterns up front.’
Under this level of scrutiny with his club behind closed doors and under the tabloid media spotlight, the pressures of modern football and raising a young family have weighed heavily on his young shoulders.
‘I was 19 when my son Archie was born,’ he says, pointing to the array of body art he has in honour of his family, including his daughter Delilah. ‘It gave me perspective. Juggling fatherhood, training and playing is tough. When I’m fully fit and playing it’s a lot easier but when you’re injured you know you have to focus most of your time on getting fit.
“I made mistakes but I’ve learned from them”
‘When I was younger I found it hard to deal with. I questioned if I’d ever get back to the same level. I didn’t deal well with the frustrations,’ he says, in reference to tabloid scrutiny of his off-field behaviour. ‘I made mistakes but I’ve learned from them and I’m a better person for it. Now if I get injured I know what it takes to come back.’
GUNNING FOR GLORY
Following the MF shoot – in which one of his scissor kicks nearly punched a hole through the studio ceiling – Wilshere returns to first-team action with a bang. After scoring Match Of The Day’s goal of the season – a bullet half-volley into the top corner from outside the box in Arsenal’s 4-1 demolition of West Bromwich Albion – he appears as a substitute at Wembley as the Gunners retain the FA Cup, beating Aston Villa 4-0. A few weeks later he crowns his season with two stunning goals in a man- of-the-match display as England secure a vital Euro 2016 qualifying win in Slovenia.
Now, with a World Cup-winning addition to Arsenal’s fitness staff, a tailored gym routine to keep injuries in check and the incentive of an England place that’s apparently his for the taking, Wilshere is focused on reminding everyone why he created such a buzz in the first place.
‘The Euros are at the end of the season but I won’t approach it any differently,’ he says, bullishly. ‘People say you should work on your weaknesses but I think you should work on your strengths too. That’s what got you to where you are. The teams that do well are the ones that have players who’ve had a good season. It’s about building momentum when you need to be at your best if you want to succeed.’
With that, Wilshere heads for the exit, stopping to sign autographs and take pictures with the excited children that have gathered outside the studio. And since even England’s youngest supporters have already known international tournament disappointment, for their sake you hope the 2015-16 season will be a vintage one for Wilshere.
Published by Men's Fitness in the August 2015 issue.