Can Jack Wilshere still become the world-class star Xavi, Guardiola and Wenger predicted?

Can Jack Wilshere still become the world-class star Xavi, Guardiola and Wenger predicted?

WITH JUST OVER AN HOUR PLAYED in an under-23 match between Arsenal and Manchester City, a late foul has resulted in what the media claimed was a “mass brawl”. The incident has led to two players being sent off, but that can be expected when one of the players, Tyreke Wilson, is a 17-year-old eager to impress and show he’s ready to debut with the first team. But the other player in question wasn’t so young; in fact, when the other player made his first-team debut, Wilson hadn’t yet started secondary school.

To some, Jack Wilshere represents all that is wrong with English footballers. The talent may be there but they are overhyped and given too much at a young age. When the pressure is really on, they aren’t emotionally equipped enough to handle it. To some, Wilshere represents the sort of player whose absence explains why England continue to underperform on the global stage. That players of Wilshere’s ilk are no longer produced within academies so often focused on physique and athleticism over brain and guile. Even Xavi acknowledges that he doesn’t play “in the English way”. 

With Wilshere’s contract in its final year and the player approaching his 26th birthday, this year represents a crossroads in the career of a player who promised so much from a young age, a player who we maybe shouldn’t give up on just yet.

There had long been rumblings about what a special talent Arsenal possessed in a teenage Wilshere when he was making his way through the youth teams. The Stevenage-born midfielder grew up in a family of West Ham supporters but found his way to Arsenal via a spell in Luton Town’s youth setup. As he developed, Wilshere made great strides and it was clear his talent was far beyond his years.

The Englishman broke Cesc Fàbregas’ record as the club’s youngest league debutant at the age of 16 years and 254 days against Blackburn in 2009. By the end of that season he would make his Champions League debut, also at the age of 16, and score his first goal for the club in a League Cup game against Sheffield United. Arsenal’s average age was just 19 but with Wilshere at the forefront, the Gunners produced a sensational performance which left Sheffield United manager Kevin Blackwell speechless over the youngster’s performance: “I could hardly believe what I was seeing. I had to remind myself he was only 16.” 

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When you watch youth football it’s extremely rare that you witness a player with such vision and control at the age of 15 or 16 like Wilshere had. The night he first showed the wider public his talent was in the FA Youth Cup final of 2009. Arsenal, managed by Steve Bould, were looking for their first title in nine years and Wilshere was the undisputed jewel in the team.

At the first leg at the Emirates, in a game in which many players would go on to have professional careers, including Bartley, Frimpong, Lansbury and Coquelin for Arsenal and Ayala, Wisdom and Ince for Liverpool, Wilshere looked a cut above everyone. Scoring one and assisting a couple of others, Arsenal’s 4-1 first leg win all but secured the title. The reputation and clamour for Jack Wilshere had begun.

The summer of 2009 only heightened the belief that he was a unique talent. Still just 17, Wilshere scored two and received the man of the match award as Arsenal cruised past Rangers and won the Emirates Cup. The next few months were tough for Wilshere with opportunities emerging only in cup competition. Arsène Wenger knew he had a diamond but the strength of Arsenal’s midfield meant that he wasn’t getting enough game time. So, in January 2010, Wilshere joined Bolton until the end of the year.

The move suited all parties. Bolton, managed by Owen Coyle, were no longer the direct, physical side they once were under Sam Allardyce. His six months at the Reebok matured Wilshere, gave him regular game time, and he came back to Arsenal a more rounded player, one ready to cement his place in the first team. It left Coyle convinced he was a special talent: “Everything he does oozes class.”

You could make a case that Wilshere’s 2010/11 season was the best seen by an English teenager since Wayne Rooney’s emergence and not reached again since Dele Alli’s first year at Spurs. The year started perfectly for Wilshere as he received his England debut in a friendly against Hungary, and the remainder of itr went from strength to strength.

Wilshere cemented himself as a regular first-teamer in the heart of the midfield alongside Alex Song in a 4-2-3-1. With Samir Nasri on the left, Theo Walcott or Andrei Arshavin on the right, and Fàbregas in the playmaker position behind Robin van Persie, this was one of the finest attacking sides in Europe. Ultimately, perhaps this side more than any before or since should have been the Arsenal side to become a major force, but it wasn’t to be. Despite some solid league showings – they beat both Chelsea and Manchester United in the league as well as sweeping past Manchester City at the Etihad – it was a campaign of missed opportunities and complacency against weaker opposition.

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The season will be remembered for two games. The League Cup final defeat to Birmingham was a match Arsenal should never have lost but they handed the win to a Birmingham led by Obafemi Martins. However, it was the Champions League round of 16 tie against Barcelona which will live long in the memories of Arsenal fans, as well as one Pep Guardiola, who commented on Wilshere’s performance after the game: “Special. He left a massive impression. A high, high level.”

The first leg at the Emirates was a scintillating game, with Arsenal going toe-to-toe with Guardiola’s untouchables. David Villa gave Barça a first-half lead which lasted well into the second period when, with under 15 minutes to go, all sense of reason vanished. Two goals in five minutes from Van Persie and Arshavin turned the game in Arsenal’s favour. 

A 19-year-old Wilshere was man of the match and his composure, use of the ball and bravery were nothing short of remarkable. In a second leg in which Arsenal played well, they found themselves 3-1 down with 10 men following Van Persie’s controversial red card. With just three minutes to go, Wilshere wins the ball and slips a gorgeous outside of the foot pass into the path of Nicklas Bendtner to go through and win the tie against perhaps the best side in European history. 

Time seemed to stop as Bendtner took an eternity to adjust his feet and gather the ball under his clumsy spell before Javier Mascherano produced the tackle of the season to deny the Gunners. That was the moment at which Wilshere’s career spluttered towards Earth; a world-class pass let down by a striker whose head was in the same clouds as Wilshere’s feet.

It’s perhaps futile to dwell on the years since because they’ve been publicised enough. Injuries have been an overarching presence in Wilshere’s career. Season after season it seems is stop-start or make or break for the midfielder, and as such, it’s been hard for Wilshere to truly develop into the player many thought he could be. That’s not to say he hasn’t had his moments, but when you only feature for half a season – often less – it’s hard to fulfil your potential.

One issue that has followed Wilshere throughout the entirety of his career is that of his position. Where should he be played? Do you play him in a double pivot as he did when he first broke into the Arsenal first team alongside Song? Playing deeper, it allows him to get on the ball as much as possible and seeing the space in front allows him to break the lines with driving runs or incisive passes. 

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For Bournemouth he featured higher up the park, almost in a number 10 position, with Eddie Howe wanting him as involved in the final third as possible. There were also doubts from Howe that Wilshere had the legs to play in a deeper position. This season for Arsenal he has featured in a similar role as part of the attacking two in a 3-4-2-1, to mostly good effect.

There has long been a clamour for him to be involved as a regista, where he has featured for England from time to time, given the success that other deep-lying playmakers such as Marco Verratti, Andrea Pirlo and Toni Kroos have had. Personally, I’m yet to be convinced that Wilshere has the passing range for such a position, but I would be inclined to see him featuring in a deeper position. 

It’s easy to say in hindsight but the transfer to Bournemouth, despite being the easier option in regards to his family, was probably not the right move. A year abroad, away from the pressure-cooker of the English media and their obsession with Wilshere, would have served him better, much like it did Joe Hart. Both Milan and Roma were linked last summer and a year in Serie A could’ve developed Wilshere both tactically and physically as well as re-energising his love for the game. 

Hindsight aside, with Wilshere back at Arsenal and featuring prominently in cup competitions, it would seem foolish not to offer him a new contract given his current deal expires at the end of the season. He has shown enough to suggest he still has plenty to offer and, at the age of just 25, he may yet blossom. Xavi certainly thinks so: “If he can overcome injuries he can still go one and be one of the best midfield players in the world.”

That’s not to say that he isn’t without his faults. both on and off the pitch. Could he have been more disciplined and eliminated his escapades in late-night London hotspots? Of course, but he was a young man at the time and he isn’t the first player to enjoy the perks of the game while still playing well. His enjoyment of life doesn’t warrant the criticism that surrounds him, synonymous with a culture in which footballers are often viewed with disdain by the public.

Ultimately, Wilshere suffers from a similar fate as Raheem Sterling in that they achieved too much, too young at big clubs having come through their ranks. They seem to face more media pressure than most other players – Rooney is another notable figure, and he has a similar back-story – with nonsensical stories of them splashing their wealth used to tarnish their reputation.

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In an age where a generation has emerged that seemingly overcame more adversity, Wilshere and Sterling are viewed as part of the problem of English footballers in that they are mollycoddled prima donnas. Dele Alli had to scrap his way to the top from League 1; Harry Kane had to work harder than most to prove his worth at Tottenham; Eric Dier had to learn his trade in Portugal; Adam Lallana battled through the divisions with Southampton; we all know the Jamie Vardy story. Do Wilshere and Sterling have more tumultuous off-field lives than those players? Do they deserve to be held up to different standards?

People also suggest that Wilshere should change how he plays – that his ability to beat the man and willingness to run at his opponent draws the tackles into what is clearly a weakened body. Perhaps there’s an element of truth to it as he simply can’t take games by the scruff of the neck like Steven Gerrard did at Liverpool or Patrick Vieira before him at Arsenal. 

But here’s the thing: Jack Wilshere shouldn’t change because that’s what makes him special and it’s part of the attraction to the player. Arsenal fans love him because he isn’t perfect but the uniqueness in which he plays, aided by the fact that he came through the academy, means that he’s one of them. Perhaps this explains why Wilshere remains more of an Arsenal favourite than Aaron Ramsey despite the Welshman scoring two FA Cup-winning goals. 

There aren’t many players who possess the touch and feel of the ball that Wilshere does. He’s a throwback to the maverick midfielders of earlier times. His style is reminiscent of the vastly underrated Guti, who faced many similar questions during his time at Real Madrid and also suffered from injuries.

In an age where academies produce fitter, more athletic midfielders, whose style is focused on ball retention often in the form of safe sideways passes, Wilshere is a survivor of earlier times, the prototype who was once considered the new Paul Gascoigne. Through all the injuries and stunted progression, it’s easy to forget what a joy Wilshere is to watch at his best. And, at 26, his time may yet come.

By Ross Carr  

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