Nothing makes me cringe more than when young English midfielders are talked about as if they’ve already won Premier League and Champions League titles when in fact they’re still yet to make 100 career appearances.
So when, in the same week, Arsene Wenger compared Jack Wilshere to Zinedine Zidane and the tabloids began speculating a bidding war between Chelsea and Manchester United over Everton prodigy Ross Barkley after just 17 senior outings and one goal for the Toffees, the cringe factor reached such a level that I had to schedule a quick visit to the vomitorium. It was hard to tell whether I was flicking through the back pages of the tabloids or watching a re-run of Miley Cyrus’s infamously cringe-worthy VMA twerking performance.
At the weekend, the Arsenal manager told reporters that Wilshere possesses the talent and mentality to become England’s answer to Zinedine Zidane, not neccesarily in style but in their apparent shared ability to drive the rest of their team-mates to success.
The Frenchman stated in a press conference; “National teams need a guy who absorbs this type of pressure and takes it, We had Zidane. When the France team played well it was all Zidane, but the others could play. Before, we had Platini. In the history of the French national team, the results stop when Platini stops. And they stopped when Zidane stopped. You need a good generation but you also need one player.”
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But let’s put things in perspective here. Twenty years ago, back when Zinedine Zidane was a 21 year-old at Bordeaux, he was bagging six goals or more per season, had made 120 appearances in the French top flight and scored two goals in two games for the France national team. Jack Wilshere on the other hand, has a Premier League record of one goal and nine assists in 66 appearances and is yet to get himself on the score sheet for the Three Lions.
Wenger argues it’s the mentality the Algerian shares with Wilshere rather than the way they play or what they do on the pitch – the Arsenal man is more of a box to box midfielder, whereas Zidane’s uniqueness came from his ability to affect the final third. But that rare gift is what made Zidane an exceptional player, arguably the most talented of his generation, whereas a lack of cutting edge when breaking out of the middle of the park is the 21 year-old’s biggest flaw.
That’s not to suggest that Wilshere isn’t a player capable of great things, especially in an England jersey – whilst the old guard, the Frank Lampards, Gareth Barrys, Steven Gerrards and Michael Carricks, represent the dying age of two-footed tackles and 60 yard through balls at an almost Italian pace, the Gunners midfielder bucks the trend in his movement, dribbling ability and pace, and is the only regular member of the Three Lions’ senior squad seemingly capable of running through the middle of the park with the ball at his feet. For an England fan, the idea of a central midfielder running at an opponent in a bid to take him on rather than upend him is a foreign and exciting concept.
But there’s still a long way to go before Wilshere’s abilities, unique as they are for an Englishman, begin to parallel those of a player who’s won the Ballon d’Or, a World Cup, the European Championship, the Champions League, Serie A twice and La Liga once. Granted, the Arsenal midfielder has a whole career ahead of him to produce a CV as prestigious as Zidanes, but in the mean time, the comparisons can only do more harm than good.
There’s already enough pressure on Jack Wilshere’s young shoulders without the need to compare him to the greatest midfielder of the previous generation. Despite having made just 66 Premier League appearances, he’s already being discussed as the entire future of English football whenever he turns out for the Three Lions, he’s lined up as Arsenal’s future captain and the savour to get them out of their dormant state in the Premier League title race, and he’s already appeared on the cover of FIFA 12.
Despite the hype, the England international has managed just 29 league appearances in the last three years due to his persistent injury bouts, and even this summer, his progress in pre-season was stalled by an operation on his ankle. Push him too much too young and the youngster’s club career will follow a similar pattern to Michael Owen’s.
And Wenger’s comments couldn’t have come at a worse time considering Wilshere’s been unable to regain the form that landed him the Premier League’s Young Player of the Year award in 2011 since returning to somewhere near full fitness. For the Gunners, he’s been lukewarm at best and struggled at times in a deeper role in the Arsenal midfield, whilst for England, falling over whenever a Ukrainian came near him in last week’s World Cup qualifier is certainly not what I envisage when considering the future of the national game. Right now, there hasn’t been a point in Wilshere’s short career where he’s looked less like Zinedine Zidane.
Just to make it clear, this is not an attempt to single out and criticise Wilshere, although I do believe that all the midfielder has shown so far in his career is his enormous potential – regular suggestions that he’s already amongst the world’s best are completely absurd.
Perhaps it’s the legacy of the Gerrard-Lampard-midfield complex that’s made England so obsessed with our future in the middle of the park, but I can’t count the amount of times Tom Cleverley has been tipped to become the next Paul Scholes, despite the fact he reminds me very much of Nicky Butt, and Ross Barkley, whom the majority of Premier League fans probably hadn’t even heard of before his goal against Norwich, is now apparently worth £30million and will become the next generation’s answer to Wayne Rooney. Even the Manchester United man, who netted his 200th Red Devils goal last night, made 77 appearances for Everton before Sir Alex Ferguson signed him in 2004.
It’s not that these players don’t have great potential – they’ve all shown exceptional talent for their age. But we’ve been here before with English prodigies. Francis Jeffers was once considered as the future of the Three Lions’ strike force, David Bentley was hailed as the next David Beckham and Robbie Fowler’s career took a sudden downward turn for club and country after leaving Liverpool in 2001. And who remembers Manchester City’s Michael Johnson?
Wilshere doesn’t seem the type to take up a similar path, but I’d rather have the apparent future of English football well-grounded and thriving without the weight of expectation than crumbling under the pressure of being compared with the footballing greats of past eras without even claiming a single piece of silverware so far in his career. Of course, expectation is inevitable for a youngster of Wilshere’s quality, but Arsene Wenger should be keeping his player’s feet on the ground, not inflating his head to the point where it begins floating in the clouds.
Do we need to stop overhyping young English midfielders?
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