Last week, Jack Wilshere was caught by paparazzi chugging on a fag in a Las Vegas swimming pool, making it the second time in just twelve months he’s been spotted sucking on a cancer stick, and rubbing further salt into the wound that was statistically England’s worst World Cup campaign in their history.
The Arsenal midfielder’s actions have sparked an interesting debate regarding what standards should be expected from players in the modern game.
Indeed, having a bi-annual cigarette will do your body little, if any actual harm. What’s more, evidence suggests that rather than inhaling an entire Mayfair Superking, Wilshere was merely having a drag on his brother’s – he was on holiday after all. Thirty years ago, not lighting up on an evening out would probably have sparked questions on the terraces about your sexuality. But that was thirty years ago.
Nowadays, footballers are meant to be the pinnacle of athleticism, their whole bodies designed and distorted into footballing machines. They’re also meant to be -whether they like it or not – role models for the younger generations.
More than the 22 year-old’s health, it’s the principle of Wilshere’s occasional smoking lust that causes the most concern. Just as with Kyle Walker’s hippy-crack debacle, that kind of thing can wait until mid-to-late-thirties retirement. Until then, your body belongs to your club, your team-mates and the fans.
Bearing Jack Wilshere’s age in mind, perhaps he can be forgiven. Arsene Wenger, for the second time, appears to be taking the softly, softly approach by limiting the disciplinary process to a stern talking-to.
But the incident does highlight several lingering concerns regarding Wilshere, most prevalently that factors other than his ability will inevitably see him fail to realise his full potential.
Paul Scholes hit the nail on the head in March when he launched a scathing critique of the England international live on Sky Sports. “He does not look any better a player now than when he was 17,” argued the retired maestro, who is more than worth listening to when it comes to all things central midfield.
Of course, recurring injuries have been a major factor. Wilshere missed the entire 2011/12 campaign with a stress fracture in his ankle and spent the following season reduced to a bit-part role out of fear of aggregating his injury further. So bearing in mind he’s only actually enjoyed three seasons at full health since his 17th birthday, perhaps a lack of natural progression is understandable.
That being said, in that time period, what part of Wilshere’s game has actually improved? His five goals across all competitions last term bettered his previous best of two, yet it’s hardly an improvement worth noting for an apparent No.10. Likewise, despite being more commonly deployed in deeper roles of late, the 22 year-old’s defensive game remains as ill-disciplined and non-anticipatory as ever, having averaged just 1.3 tackles and 0.4 interceptions per match last season. He’s not made himself quicker or stronger either, or shown any greater understanding of movement, positioning and tactics.
Indeed, I would be prepared to argue that within the three years between the present day and Wilshere’s first full Arsenal campaign, that won him the PFA Young Player of the Year award, Arsenal’s Player of the Year award and a place in the Premier League Team of the Season, he’s in fact become a lazier player.
When the Three Lions midfielder first burst onto the scene, he was ferocious and fearless with and without the ball, prepared to take on any size of defender and unstoppably determined to carry the ball as close to the opposition penalty area as possible. In addition to his technical qualities, that admittedly are still prevalent today, it was surging runs through the middle of the park that became Wilshere’s trademark, especially when compared to other England internationals at the time.
But that ambition, that mixture of wit, talent, mobility and determination, leading to many claiming the Gunners youngster was worthy of a place in Barcelona’s legendary midfield, has been swapped for a significantly more passive style.
Rather than beating his man, theatrically claiming a dubious free-kick, playing on his slender 5 foot 7 frame, has somehow become an acceptable contribution. Rather than committing to tackles or closing down space, holding position whilst Arsenal’s defence are forced to make challenges has become Wilshere’s norm.
Rather than driving the game forward or grabbing it by the scruff of the neck, as the Arsenal midfielder once did regularly, he now closer resembles a cog in a machine – his task important, yet himself easily replaceable. Wilshere has not been intrinsic to Arsenal’s successes, or England’s successes for that matter, for some time.
This laziness, this lack of progression, is epitomised perfectly by the Gunners starlet’s smoking infatuation. It takes willpower to quit a habit – not that Wilshere actually has one – and it takes willpower to decline the pressures of your peers, just as it takes willpower to improve yourself as a footballer, just as it takes willpower to dominate a football match.
In every respect , Wilshere has shown none over the last few years. On and off the pitch, he’s let previously high standards slip as if he already feels entitled to succeed.
Don’t get me wrong, the 22 year-old is a sensational talent, but the smoking incident illustrates how a lack of dedication will inevitably limit his growth as a footballer.