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Jack Wilshere joins Bournemouth on loan: At the crossroads again?
Last Updated: 01/09/16 2:37pm
Jack Wilshere's surprise loan move to Bournemouth in search of regular football highlights the fact that his career is at the crossroads. Could the midfielder still fulfil his vast potential? Adam Bate looks at why there are still so many hoping he can do just that…
"As a manager you do not want a guy to be a star before he has delivered and maybe here that is more difficult than anywhere else." - Arsene Wenger discussing Jack Wilshere in 2009
It's more than five-and-a-half years since a teenage Jack Wilshere took on Barcelona and won. Showing expert control in tight situations and a swiftness of thought, his display in Arsenal's 2-1 Champions League win over Barcelona at the Emirates Stadium in 2011 even saw him described as "indistinguishable" from midfield icons Xavi and Andres Iniesta.
Wilshere looked like a player who'd been plucked from La Masia and asked to swap shirts to make it a fair fight. It was one game, but context is everything. Two year earlier, Sam Allardyce had watched England's 2-0 defeat in Spain and delivered the matter-of-fact verdict that the country could never produce players of the technical ability of their opponents.
Wilshere was the one who challenged that notion. Fast forward to 2016 and he can't even make Allardyce's England squad. Jamie Vardy is there, a striker who was in the seventh tier with Halifax that night in 2011. Adam Lallana was in League One. England's four full-backs at Euro 2016 had yet to muster 10 top-flight games between them. All are older than Wilshere.
It's a reminder, if one were needed, of just how special the young Wilshere was. He remains Arsenal's youngest ever debutant in league football and first featured in the Champions League aged 16. Liam Brady still remembers the moment he first laid eyes on a nine-year-old lad from Hitchin with "exceptional" talent and "outstanding" dribbling technique.
Throughout the England age-groups, Wilshere was seen as a star. Then England Under-19 coach Noel Blake described him as "one of the best" he'd seen and Sir Trevor Brooking boasted of the UEFA officials who'd routinely ask him about this extraordinary group of English players who could keep the ball. Wilshere was the poster boy for that generation.
He was symbolic of something more, the ideal fusion of the combative qualities so admired about the English game, fused with a more technical approach that had seemed little more than an aspiration. The Mail and the Telegraph both described Wilshere as a "beacon of hope". A headline in the Guardian simply said he was "the midfielder we have been waiting for".
Curiously, this wasn't merely the preserve of Englishmen transposing the hopes and dreams of a nation onto a teenager. Others indulged it too. "For the country as a whole that is the type you want," said Owen Coyle of Wilshere's loan spell at Bolton. "He has such a fantastic level of composure, which augurs well, not just for us, but also for English football."
When Paisley-born Ireland internationals and UEFA officials are enthusing, it suggests the existence of a collective delight that the English game was showing signs of progress. Thierry Henry, who trained with a 14-year-old Wilshere, said in 2011: "What a great thing for some of the guys in England that he is English-that is a great boost for them."
Only last year, Wilshere was described as "the future of English football" by Barca legend Xavi Hernandez. "With all respect," he added. "He doesn't play the English way." It was if to say, don't waste him. After all, Xavi's one-time idol Matt Le Tissier had barely got a look in and the country never quite knew what to do with Glenn Hoddle.
In truth, Wilshere can have little complaint in that regard. Even Roy Hodgson, a roundhead by nature, went beyond expectations in putting him at the heart of his plans. Wilshere was England's playmaker when fit and sometimes when not. He made it to Euro 2016 on the basis of having earned six man of the match awards in seven international appearances.
That alone is evidence that Wilshere still offers something that others cannot. In 2014/15, he averaged 3.9 dribbles per 90 minutes - remarkable numbers for a central midfielder. To put that into context, fellow England midfielders Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, James Milner, Jordan Henderson and Danny Drinkwater didn't dribble that much between them.
Wilshere brings a new interpretation to the role, more running-back than quarter-back. He has the vision to thread passes between the lines but can buy time and space with a drop of the shoulder and a shimmy too. It's a Paul Gascoigne-like ability. Unfortunately, it's not the only characteristic that he shares with the best English player of his generation.
By comparison, Wilshere's own off-field misdemeanours have been rather talked up in these staid times of high scrutiny, but his injury record cannot be explained away by intermediaries as a mere tabloid construct. The statistics show that he has played only a third of the Premier League minutes he might have done over the past six years.
Some of it has been put down to his aggressive style of play. Indeed, Wilshere once gave his old Bolton captain Kevin Davies a kick in his very first training session. As Henry noted, he "isn't scared to put his foot in" and has suffered for his art. But his injury issues haven't all been knocks, there have been muscle problems too and there are fears that it's taken its toll.
In the high pressing world of a Premier League that's more intense than ever with the likes of Mauricio Pochettino and Jurgen Klopp driving the agenda, Wilshere is in danger of becoming an anachronism. Getting around the pitch with pace and power is a prerequisite even for Bournemouth, the only bottom-eight team to dominate possession last season.
The Cherries' current left-footed central midfielder Andrew Surman covered more ground than any other Premier League player in 2015/16 and has run more than 11 kilometres in each of his side's three games so far. Wilshere's not done that in the Premier League for more than two-and-a-half years. He'll have to try now. But at least he'll get a chance to play.
Bournemouth's Andrew Surman covered more ground than any other Premier League player in 2015/16.
That's surely the priority now. For while he has played in back-to-back FA Cup wins, it's three years since Wilshere started more than four Premier League games in a row and an extended run of regular football would do much to dispel the doubters. There's still a chance for him to be the player many hoped rather than a punchline for his critics.
"If he can overcome injuries, then he can still go on and be one of the best midfield players in the world," said Xavi as recently as last year. The fact that Wilshere is still only 24 offers some encouragement. In fact, there were still more than twice as many players in England's Euro 2016 squad who were older than him than those who were younger.
Michail Antonio, for example, is the latest new arrival to pitch up at St George's Park, but he hadn't even played a Premier League game until after turning 25. Wilshere's task is to stay fit and seize this chance. With Wenger already enthusing about his new Emmanuel Petit in the shape of Granit Xhaka, it's unclear whether that opportunity will come again at Arsenal.
Wilshere cannot be accused of being the star who never delivered. He's already achieved too much for that to be true. But the boy who faced Barcelona's best as an equal and promised to lead the way for his country is yet to fully emerge. Jack Wilshere is at the crossroads and his Arsenal manager won't be the only one following his progress with interest.