Four seasons after establishing himself as a regular in the Arsenal team, Jack Wilshere is still waiting on that big break, the career-defining step up.
There have of course been announcements from the midfielder of his talent. His performance against Barcelona in the Champions League in 2011 was outstanding, heightened further by his inexperience yet comfort moving the ball around such refined superstars as Xavi and Andres Iniesta. And there was that international game against Brazil last year, where Wilshere was voted Man of the Match.
But going into the World Cup, talk about the Arsenal midfielder is muted, as if to indirectly say there isn’t really much in the way of expectation. Daniel Sturridge should be England’s starting centre-forward, coming off a season where he was the highest scoring English striker; Roy Hodgson is being encouraged to start Raheem Sterling due to the unpredictability and explosiveness the Liverpool starlet provides; both Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Ross Barkley had a fine game against Ecuador last week and few would have complaints about either’s inclusion in England’s starting XI in Brazil.
But Wilshere isn’t part of the conversation. He should be, there’s no doubt about it. His reputation as one of the best English midfielders warrants it. Those games against Barcelona and Brazil weren’t flashes in the pan; he produced performances like that for the majority of his first full season in the Arsenal team, with that 18-month injury halting any further development.
This past season, Wilshere has been a mixed bag. He didn’t look at home in the centre of midfield in the big games, with Arsenal on the receiving end of a 5-1 hammering at Liverpool and the midfielder giving the ball away deep inside his own area in a 6-3 loss at Manchester City.
His better games came against the likes of Aston Villa, where his goal and assist added to the perception that Arsene Wenger had genuine depth in quality in that midfield position, with Aaron Ramsey and Wilshere able to rotate in and out of the side.
The problem is they haven’t been enough. For every Brazil, there’s a Liverpool. There is an uncertainty surrounding Wilshere that needs to be put to bed for good. The doubters are becoming full-blown detractors, though it would be fair to say they’re being clouded by general disillusion and disappointment.
Wilshere is 22; his regular involvement with both England and Arsenal, coupled with him being a father, means he’s no longer a youngster. There’s a degree of responsibility that needs to be adopted by the midfielder in order to get his career going.
There can be no better place than this World Cup. Stopping well short of suggesting Wilshere can be the inspiration that sees England deep into the competition, he simply needs high-level, consistent performances throughout. We know he’s capable. Injuries and the fear of ending up on the sidelines long term can provide mental lapses; a criticism of Wilshere is that he needs to move the ball quicker and not allow opponents to get close enough to deliver a potentially damaging challenge.
The setting is ideal. It’s the biggest stage a footballer can perform on, but the spotlight is well away from the 22-year-old. It’s a big help, the expectation is elsewhere, mainly on Liverpool’s group, and there are still many who are waiting on Wayne Rooney to deliver. It’s that kind of shelter that allowed him to flourish as he did alongside Cesc Fabregas and Alex Song in Arsenal’s midfield. That season, 2010-11, Arsenal had Fabregas, Robin van Persie, Samir Nasri, and Andrey Arshavin as established stars who took on the responsibility. It would be fair to say that due to Wilshere’s injury problems over the years, he hasn’t been quite ready to shoulder a burden that was previously divided among so many.
Wilshere has had the fortune, in a way, of a shortened league season due, one again, to injury, out of action from March to May. He’ll go into the World Cup equipped with a freshness that would make him the envy of many of his teammates. It’ll be important that he uses that advantage to its max.
Four seasons on and we’re still waiting for Wilshere to permanently take that next step in his career. This World Cup must be that springboard his club and country are impatiently waiting for.