Jack Wilshere was supposed to be that dude.
In 2010, after a friendly against Denmark, then–England manager Fabio Capello invoked sovereigns like Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi, and Raùl in praise of a teenage Jack Wilshere. (While Maldini, Baresi, and Raùl were all great at young ages for big clubs, none were midfielders like Wilshere, but that’s neither here nor there.) In 2013, Bastian Schweinsteiger rated Wilshere as one of Europe’s best, and as recently as last year, in the face of the mounting evidence to the contrary, Xavi was hailing Wilshere as “the future of English football.” Xavi’s praise stems from a match back in 2011; Wilshere had gone shoulder to shoulder with Xavi when Arsenal bested Barcelona, 2–1, and his counterpart came away impressed. That was five years ago.
“If [Wilshere] had a career that had been injury-free we would already be talking about him as one of the top central midfield players in Europe,” Xavi said last year.
With the greatest possible respect, if I could jump higher I could dunk from the dotted line.
For context: Wilshere debuted in the Champions League as a 16-year-old. In 2010, he was loaned to Bolton Wanderers, and though he only played 13 games during his spell there, Bolton loved Wilshere so much they tried to bring him back for the following season. The moon seemed within reach when he featured for Arsenal 38 times in the 2010–11 campaign, grabbing Arsenal Player of the Year and PFA Young Player of the Year awards along the way, but his meteoric rise was brought to a screeching halt when a stress fracture in a preseason friendly against the New York Red Bulls kept him out of action for the next 17 months.
What’s followed can only be described as a series of trainwrecks, with brief commercial-like breaks of happiness, that ended with Arsenal’s next great midfield general, the much heralded Future of English Football, being shipped out on loan to league minnows Bournemouth. It’s soul crushing when you lay the scenes end to end.
After missing out on Euro 2012 due to his preseason-turned-season-long injury, Wilshere returned to action for the 2012–13 season. He made 23 appearances, but was used economically by Arsène Wenger with requisite “minor surgery” to remove a pin from his leg looming. The ensuing 2013–14 campaign went reasonably well…
…Until a hairline fracture in his foot cut his season short. He went to Brazil with Roy Hodgson’s England team for the World Cup that summer, but started only once — in a game against Costa Rica that didn’t count for anything and ended in a scoreless draw. Surgery to repair ankle ligaments limited him to 11 appearances for Arsenal in 2014–15, and a fractured fibula that occurred in preseason training kept him to just one appearance in 2015–16. Believing him to be a “special player” worth the risk of further injury, Hodgson re-upped on Wilshere for Euro 2016. The 24-year-old proceeded to be markedly whatever in games against Slovakia and Iceland as England crashed out of the competition, leaving Hodgson without a job and Wilshere’s stock in the crawl space beneath its all-time low. Even so, Wilshere just knocked out some pull-ups in his shower cubicle and resolved to Be Better Next Time. Even while being forcibly pushed toward the margins, his resilience rings admirable.
Injury, which has been a bitch, isn’t totally to blame for Wilshere’s misfortune — he’s also just too versatile. Capello saw him as a deep-lying, hard-tackling enforcer, Wenger’s used him as a winger and a box-to-box midfielder; Wilshere himself wanted to be a no. 10. But while he’s tried on all of these different roles, time has run out — Arsenal can no longer wait for him to settle into the position he plays best, nor do they need to. Wilshere can do it all, but there’s nothing he currently does that someone else on the Gunners’ roster doesn’t do better, which makes this tweet from before the league opener against Liverpool that much more depressing:
Mesut Ozil is still the best playmaker in the Premier League; new Swiss signing Granit Xhaka is younger, distributes better, and imposes himself at the center of the park in a greater way; and Santi Cazorla, as a metronome, pairs better in the middle with Xhaka. As a result, Wilshere has seen just 37 minutes of playing time three fixtures into this current Premier League season, and was dropped from England’s first team by Sam Allardyce because there just isn’t enough to go on. And, given that Francis Coquelin and Mohamed Elneny are ahead of him in Arsenal’s midfield pecking order, playing time isn’t likely to become more available.
A move away from the Emirates being the only option and Italy being too far and strange and non-English-speaking for his young family, Wilshere is set to join manager Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth on loan. That’ll be good for regular first-team Premier League football and general visibility, though probably not much else. Wilshere needs to be ushered into a role that will eventually work for both him and Arsenal if he does wind up being recalled. It’s hard to imagine that Howe and Bournemouth, who will take what they can get, will be able to foster that.
From the Champions League as a teenager to Bournemouth now is a shockingly far fall from grace, but still, Wilshere is just 24 and not yet in his prime. Maybe he’ll be back. But until then, Arsenal fans, remember him as he should be remembered: on top of a double-decker bus, pissed out of his fucking tree in a bucket hat, asking everyone what they think of Tottenham.