It’s the year 2030 and pundits are still arguing whether or not England should recall Jack Wilshere; Never have so many words been typed by so many about someone who played so little.
It’s often felt that way with Wilshere a player who’s natural gifts on the pitch far exceed his English contemporaries but whose career has been blighted by one injury after another. Wilshere has a passing range and ability on the ball that at his best bares comparison to Luka Modric. The problem has too often been how rarely we see his best- Wilshere hasn’t been a regular pick for Arsenal since 2011. It’s not just his tendency to get injured that’s caused a career stall, it takes time and games to get back on the rhythm of first team football.
Pundits often say ‘Wilshere walks into that England midfield when fit,’ this ignores an obvious point: even if you’re fit if you don’t play regularly you can’t build any sort of form. Yet plenty lambasted Gareth Southgate for excluding Wilshere from his autumn squads even though Wilshere had 1 Premier League start for Arsenal in 3 years, ridiculous!
Southgate is a studious coach and will be well aware of Roy Hodgson’s folly in picking Wilshere for Euro 2016. In the 2015-16 season Wilshere had only accumulated 100 minutes in the Arsenal first team and yet Hodgson picked him based on his qualifying form from the previous year. Wilshere started against Slovakia in the final group game to no effect and then was bizarrely brought on at half time against Iceland and we all remember how that worked out. Wilshere was short on form and fitness and simply shouldn’t have been there never mind seen as the saviour.
This season Wilshere seemed destined to play exclusively in the Europa League where a series of impressive performances suggested he might not be the busted flush we saw playing for Bournemouth a year ago, It took an injury to Aaron Ramsey to push Wilshere into the Premier League lineup.
Since then Wilshere has played 11 Premier league games through the winter and last night scored a fine goal in a thrilling 2-2 draw with Chelsea. Playing in central midfield in Arsenal’s 3-4-2-1 system Wilshere is still finding his full range but for the first time in a long time is trending in the right direction, so should England bring him back for the March internationals?
He’s certainly good enough defensive midfielder Eric Dier is the only lock for the 2018 World Cup squad in central midfield- England need to select 3 or 4, meaning at least 2 spots are up for grabs. the other contenders are Jordan Henderson who himself is struggling for form and fitness and had a much lower ceiling than Wilshere, Harry Winks who’s shown immense promise but is still only 36 games into a Tottenham career, Fabian Delph who is currently playing left back, the limited Jack Cork and Jake Livermore and untried talents like James Ward-Prowse, Nathaniel Chalobah & Lewis Cook.
Assuming his injury problems are in the past (and that’s a big assumption) there are 2 major knocks on Wilshere. Firstly there’s a temperament issue; he played well against Chelsea but was fortunate to avoid a red card and there’s plenty of evidence Wilshere suggesting he can be a risky player who picks up suspensions and some of his off field antics suggest he could be a problem player at a tournament.
But the biggest issue with Wilshere is can he be relied on to be fit, not just free of injury but fit to play every game. What a lot of Wilshere’s advocates often forget is being available for the opening game of a tournament is the start of a players journey at a World Cup not the be all and end all. England will play 3 group games in 10 days, if they make the quarter finals it’s 5 within 21 days and anything better 7 in a month. England cannot risk taking a player whose general match fitness suggests he can’t make that schedule. Some would argue there’s 23 players in a squad and you can take a risk- but you’ll inevitably pick up injuries in training before and during the tournament so you can’t go in with a player who you don’t expect to be fit from game to game from the outset.
So for Wilshere to go to the World Cup he needs to play week in week out for Arsenal to prove his level of fitness is good enough for a tournament, if he’s playing a game every 14 days he becomes a risk not worth taking. Some would argue Harry Winks may not play that often either, but Winks doesn’t have the rotten fitness record Wilshere has endured, there’s no reason to think Winks or Ruben Loftus-Cheek can’t play a full tournament whereas there’s plenty of evidence to suggest Wilshere can’t.
In conclusion if Wilshere plays a full part in the remainder of Arsenal’s season he should be in the mix to go to the World Cup. If he manages that he needs to show enough form to suggest he can unlock the defences of Tunisia & Panama (both likely to play 9 men behind the ball).
For Wilshere’s England career much like Ross Barkley’s this year represents the last chance saloon, if he doesn’t make it England have enough young creative talent coming through to move on from him. But it would be a shame to see a player if such promise never deliver on the biggest stage.