Since Roy Hodgson took the England hotseat in summer 2012, the former West Brom and Liverpool boss has maintained an insistence upon bringing through young home-grown talents towards international standard. That ultimate aim has been reinforced by Greg Dyke’s target of winning the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
From the days of the failed ‘Golden Generation’ it’s a refreshing change; dependency upon the Three Lions’ already established stars has undoubtedly contributed to the ill-heath English football, and particularly the English national team, is currently enduring.
But the unforeseen after effect has been that certain players, due to their age representing the illusion of high potential, are regularly given free passes into Hodgson’s squads regardless of their fitness or form.
The most notable example of this is public petition victim Tom Cleverley; the Manchester United midfielder’s form has been so stale over the last eighteen months that England fans have felt compelled to take legal action to stop him making it onto the plane to Brazil. Regardless of the wishes of the supporters, he will probably be one of the first names in Hodgson’s World Cup squad.
But we now have another protected champion in our midst whose place in the national team appears cemented on reputation alone – Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere.
No doubt, the 22 year-old is a bright spark and a talented prospect, but if we were to judge his current state on fitness and form – undoubtedly the criteria that will determine the World Cup fates of Rickie Lambert, Jay Rodriguez, Steven Caulker, Aaron Lennon, Michael Carrick, Ross Barkley and Adam Johnson, to name but a few players on the England fringe – does the Gunners midfielder actually deserve to be going to Brazil 2014?
Don’t get me wrong; there’s certainly been patches of Wilshere’s season that I’ve found incredibly impressive. Who can forget his deft finish on a stunning Arsenal move to net against Norwich back in October? Or his brace in the Champions League against Marseille? And even as recently as mid January, the England international ran the show against Aston Villa, picking up a goal, an assist and a man of the match award in the process.
But overall, these performances have been far too sporadic. In between the match-winning, buccaneering, dazzling displays, Wilshere’s outings have ranged from sturdy to sub-standard.
In previous campaigns, we could have given the midfielder the benefit of the doubt. But he’s now an established member of an Arsenal side that spent four months at the top of the Premier League table, yet his domestic return of three goals and four assists in 23 appearances fails to represent either of those feats.
Just to put that into perspective, Barkley has found the same amount of successful strikes in his first full Premier League campaign, Sunderland’s Adam Johnson produced more goals in January alone, and Adam Lallana has been responsible for four goals and one assist more at Southampton.
Admittedly, it’s not all about attacking output – although you have to question the purposes of an attacking midfielder who has been outscored and out-assisted by a number of full-backs, centre-halves and defensive midfielders in the Premier League this season.
But it would take a blindly-loyal fool to admit that Wilshere hasn’t become a shadow of his former self. His short passing game has become sloppy, his effort off the ball lacks energy and desire, and those trade-mark surging runs at opposition defences, that once made the 22 year-old stand out against the grain of immobile, technically-challenged home-grown players, have been replaced by five-yard dribbles that most commonly end in a rather dubiously-awarded free kick.
Once hyped as the saviour of English football and worthy of a place in Barcelona’s legendary midfield, the last nine months of Wilshere’s Arsenal career can be best defined by the amount of fouls he’s won by exaggerating the robust challenges of opposing midfielders. If Arsene Wenger wants Arjen Robben to quit the theatrics, I suggest he quarantines the infection in the Emirates camp first.
Ok, so current form aside. We shouldn’t discredit the fact that Jack Wilshere has put in a number good performances for England in the past – most notably against Brazil at Wembley – and seeing as Ashley Cole and Jermain Defoe’s England inclusion will be decided on prior international showings, that right should be extended to the Gunners star.
But now the young midfielder faces a lengthy injury lay-off for a hairline foot fracture, requiring six weeks of rehabilitation before he’s allowed to return to training at London Colney. England’s first World Cup match is on the 14th of June, giving Wilshere just a month and a half following his sideline bout to fully revive his fitness and form.
As if fate had foreseen, Roy Hodgson informed reporters just hours before Wilshere was stretchered off against Denmark that ‘loyalty’ wouldn’t affect his decision to only include fully fit players in his World Cup squad.
But through reputation alone, the Arsenal midfielder’s situation will force the England manager to go back on his word. No matter how impressive the likes of Tom Huddlestone, Ross Barkley and Gareth Barry are between now and May-time, Wilshere’s name has already been written on the team sheet in permanent marker. Whether he walks, runs, crawls or is carried on a stretcher, his place on the plane comes with a guarantee.
At the start of this article, I described Hodgson’s emphasis on youth as a refreshing change. However, considering the 66 year-old is now selecting World Cup places not on the best England has to offer but on what could be the best we have to offer in five or ten years-time, ignoring the fitness and form of far more deserving players in the process, is this change actually making the English game any healthier?
No – it’s teaching players like Wilshere that heralded potential alone can get you into the England squad, regardless of whether or not you’ve proved you deserve to be there.