Jack Wilshere is a name you hear a lot for a man who hasn’t made a Premier League start all season.
With just 25 minutes of top flight football under his belt from two substitute appearances so far this campaign, it’s logical that the Arsenal midfielder wasn’t included in Gareth Southgate’s England set-up, but that didn’t stop tongues wagging.
There’s no doubt that this is an incredibly talented footballer whose gifts have been ripped away from him thanks to a series of injuries which have ravaged a short career. But Wilshere is now 25-years-old and in danger of fading from the public consciousness: clearly, he is not there just yet, but after failing to make the England squad and featuring almost solely with the kids in the Europa League, it looks like the start of a slippery slope.
The question is, what can he do about it? This isn’t a new tale, and the examples are many and numerous. Perhaps an extreme one would be of Abou Diaby, a very similar Arsenal youth academy graduate whose talent, too, was lost to the treatment table, and whose gifts we are left to mourn as unfulfilled. For Arsenal, given their struggles in the centre of midfield over the last decade, both Wilshere and Diaby could both make persuasive claims to being the ‘one that got away’ for Arsene Wenger. The talent of both players is something of an unrequited love at the Emirates.
And yet, Wilshere isn’t away just yet. Indeed, he still has 10 years as a top quality footballer for the north London side; it’s entirely possible that he gets over his injury nightmare and becomes the midfielder Arsenal have needed for years. But he will never be the midfielder we all thought he would be.
That’s something that Wilshere has to accept sooner rather than later. The explosive, up and at them midfielder who broke through at the Emirates, and who came to the fore by taking a lead role in Arsenal’s transition is unlikely to be seen again. His fast-paced one-twos to bring his team up the pitch, his combativeness, sharp turns and short bursts of movement are of great benefit to a modern midfielder. An on-form Wilshere on the cusp of fulfilling his talent would be a player who any team would love to have. But injuries have stopped that from being a possibility.
Now, what the England man has to do is figure out what kind of a player he really is. Is he all about physicality and explosions from the middle of the pitch? If so, can his ankles and knees really stand up to that? These joints that seem to break down at various points, keeping him out of action on ten separate occasions in the last five years – quite aside from the fractured leg that’s dogged him since 2015.
The likelihood is that Wilshere simply cannot be this kind of player anymore. Perhaps accepting that will be the most important thing he can do. He is still young enough to learn a new game and get a uncover new skills.
Dropping deeper into the midfield to play a deeper-lying role which doesn’t involve him getting up the pitch in support of his teammates quite so much is certainly an option, but it’s one where he’d have to reinvent himself by showing he has the discipline, positional awareness and indeed the passing range for such a role in modern football. It wouldn’t be easy for him, and there’s no guarantee that he could do it properly, but it seems as though he can’t go on in his current style of play.
The problem is, he doesn’t look like doing that anytime soon. His six appearances so far this season, both in starting games and coming off the bench, shows that this isn’t happening, not yet anyway. Premier League stats are unfair since he’s played under half an hour of football, but in the Europa League, where he’s made three starts and one substitute appearance in four games, he has averaged only 37.3 passes and yet attempted almost four dribbles per game. They are the stats of an advanced player who supports the attackers, not those of a deep-lying player who controls the game.
It will soon be too late for Wilshere to make that transition properly – not because he’s too old, but because when his star fades, and he ends up at a mid-to-low level Premier League club, someone else will have taken his role in the top teams and for England, too.
The irony in all this, though, is that Wilshere could still be the very player that Arsenal have needed for a decade, someone to control the midfield properly and protect the defence without going AWOL. They’ve needed a player who can create the rhythm and the tempo, too, and it’s why they’ve missed Santi Cazorla so terribly throughout his own horrific injury problems. But whilst Wilshere could be exactly what Arsenal need, and the Gunners’ midfield role exactly what he needs, this could take the route of a fully-blown unrequited love story, where neither get what they want.