It’s entirely possible that no player has received more allowances throughout the history of the England national team than Jack Wilshere.
Of course, every manager has their favourites, and the Arsenal midfielder was clearly one of Roy Hodgson’s. But from summer 2014 to summer 2016, international tournaments included, the crocked playmaker made almost as many appearances for his country – 16 – as he did Premier League appearances for his club – 17. That’s an incredibly unhealthy situation, one that has since proved unsustainable.
Indeed, as the Three Lions prepare for a World Cup qualifier with Scotland on Saturday, they’re doing it in the absence of a player once deemed so important he’d be included in every squad as long as he could at least limp onto the plane. At this point, after another season-ending injury and as England move further into a new era under Gareth Southgate, you have to wonder whether Wilshere will ever put on the white jersey again. In any case, the chances of him returning to the status of old appear to be slim and none.
Rewind to 2013, and Wilshere produced a goal against Norwich that epitomised everything about his game. The Gunners midfielder picked the ball up outside his own penalty area, moved it down the pitch with crisp link-up play whilst galloping through the middle of the park, combined eloquently with Olivier Giroud via a series of delicate one-twos on the Canaries’ 18-yard line and stepped through the defence to calmly pass the ball beyond John Ruddy.
It was an incredible goal, admittedly against a down-and-out team, that highlighted not only Wilshere’s creativity and technique but also his footballing intelligence – and that mixture’s consequential ability to make him a genuine one-man driving force with the ball.
But in truth, that was a rare reminder of the enormous potential Wilshere had shown three seasons earlier, when he’d returned from a promising loan spell with Bolton Wanderers to emerge as one of the most important cogs in an underwhelming Arsenal side. Injuries had seriously affected his influence in between, but barring a few spectacular goals – like the one against Norwich – Wilshere’s never really come close to replicating the form that saw him win the PFA’s Young Player of the Year award in 2010/11.
Wilshere’s preferential treatment during the intermittent period, both at club and international level, continues to divide opinion. Of course, Wilshere showed special talent at a very tender age, but he’s by no means the first English player to do so.
Who remembers Michael Johnson, Michael Bridges, Ravel Morrison or even David Bentley? All of them made significant impacts in their younger years, but were never championed anywhere as militantly as Wilshere.
The real difference comes down to style of play and timing. Wilshere emerged in 2010 after Spain had won the World Cup in the most dominant, possession-retaining style possible, whereas the last remnants of England’s supposed ‘Golden Generation’ had blown their final chance to make an impact at an international tournament. England were in need of a new direction and placing their hopes on a young playmaker who seemingly echoed the tip-tap philosophy of the new world champions seemed as smart a strategy as any.
But fast forward to present day, and that desire to replicate the Spaniards isn’t as strong as it once was, especially after their capitulations at the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016. Much of the footballing world has accepted it simply can’t emulate a once-in-a-lifetime team that included some of the best midfielders of all time, whilst the rest has decided what you do with possession is far more important than how much you have. These days, effective football – usually on the counter-attack – is the name of the game.
England’s midfield situation is now wholly different as well. Although there aren’t any central midfielders quite like Wilshere, Gareth Southgate boasts one of the most exciting attacking midfielders in the world in Dele Alli, another playmaker of exotic influence in Adam Lallana and a third fine technical talent in Ross Barkley. Whilst not all can do what Wilshere could do at his peak, their quality is more than enough to keep Wilshere out of the equation. In fact, it could even be argued including him in the engine room would impact the balance of the team.
In the meantime, as we all know, Wilshere’s career has continually spiralled downward, one serious injury at a time. He’s still treated as a special case; he was set out on loan to Bournemouth this season and wasn’t even instructed to play well – which is a good job because on the most-part he didn’t – just simply to stay fit until the end of the campaign. Even that proved beyond him, however, injuring himself against Tottenham with five games left to go.
With one year remaining on his contract, it’s not even clear if Wilshere will put on an Arsenal jersey again, let alone an England one. At this point, at the age of 25, he only has a few gorgeous goals and a series of serious injuries to show for his careers at both levels.
Regardless of his many injury problems, moments like the strike against Norwich have been too uncommon for Arsenal and England to continue treating him so uniquely. This isn’t Ledley King defying a non-existent knee to put in a top-class performance every fortnight; this is a 25-year-old who has managed just 146 Premier League appearances in eight seasons – the vast majority of them very unexceptional.
In any case, both Arsenal and England are moving on without him and Wilshere now appears destined to move down the Premier League table on a permanent basis. Whilst that may earn him preferential treatment elsewhere at a smaller club, it’s hard to imagine him producing the kind of form over a long enough period to reclaim his status as the beating heart of the national team.
It’s hard to imagine him getting anything more than a token call-up.