Jack Wilshere has not featured for England since the 2-1 loss against Iceland in June, 2016. In a way, it is a strangely fitting emblem of a career on hold, a career with so much potential but for some reasons is yet to deliver.As he put it after an outstanding performance in Arsenal’s 4-2 win over Bate Borisov in Europa League on Thursday night: “Football is a game where people forget.”
Many atimes during Wilshere’s long injury crisis when he was in serious danger of becoming one of the forgotten. A promising season on loan at Bournemouth was cut short by a broken leg in April, from which he is just recovering. Though it was a game in Europe’s second-tier competition, this was a much needed advance for Wilshere, who has spent far too long on the sideline.
He ran the show for over an hour, playing high up the pitch, floating in off the wing to get the ball and creating the first goal. “I wasn’t playing as an out-and-out No10,” he explained. “I was on the wing and the boss told me to come into the pocket and pick it up. I thought it worked well first half.”
Wilshere expectedly faded as the game went on, because he is still finding his way back to full fitness. Almost as important as his defence-splitting passes and hefty challenges was the fact that he played all 90 minutes.
“It has been a while since I felt a proper Arsenal player,” Wilshere said. “But I am back, in training, back in the squad, playing these types of games. I was sat in the hotel last night thinking, and I couldn’t remember the last time I played a European away game for Arsenal. It was maybe three years ago.”
His injury last April was his third broken leg and he is just 25. That tells its own story. Wilshere obviously has had an outrageously bad fortune with injuries. As Arsene Wenger put it: “It is like you have a car accident. Some don’t want to drive any more. Some take the car and go on again.”
Wilshere, of course, was always going to grab the keys at the first opportunity. “My passion and hunger are back,” he wrote in an Instagram post after making his comeback in an under-23 match against Manchester City in August. But the passion and the hunger were never the problem. It was the discipline, the intelligence, the judgment, the touch of maturity that shows a player is serious about his development. Do I really need to go for that 50-50? Is that pass really on? Should I really have that cigarette?
There is no sign yet of a new contract as his contract expires at the end of this season. Wilshere at least, is making all the right noises. “I love this club,” he said. “They have been good to me over the years, and of course I want to stay. It’s not the right time for me or the club to discuss anything. When the time comes to sit down and talk, or not, we will see.”
A fully fit Jack Wilshere on top form would most certainly be good enough to challenge for a place in this current Arsenal midfield. His foray into the wide No. 10 role offered an exciting glimpse of where Wenger might envisage him in a 3-4-2-1 formation, even if he will have to signficantly raise his goal output if he wants to play there long-term. But this, in itself, is a reflection of where Wilshere is at the moment: a player who has spent so long out of the side that it is quite possible he no longer knows what his best position is any more.
So it is not out of place to interpret Wilshere’s journey back to the first team as a sort of search for a new identity. His comment about feeling like a “proper Arsenal player” again was particularly revealing. The new contract can wait. The England recall can wait. Wilshere’s mission right now is to determine what sort of footballer he wants to be. And really, it is the sort of task that can only be undertaken on the football pitch.