The latest in a long line of messiahs capable of doing no wrong, Jack Wilshere is currently king of all he surveys. Seen as the new Mr Arsenal and the England’s Great White Hope, he will be the first name on the team-sheet for club and country for the foreseeable future. So the story goes, anyway. When discussing ‘Jack’ it seems obligatory to forget that we have been here so many times before, and so recently at that.
The English Golden Generation is now in its footballing death throes. None of them have hit the heights that many observers expected, and some members of that group have fallen to quite embarrassing depths given their reputations. Wayne Rooney’s talent, purpose and best position are all matters re-assessed on a constant basis, the White Pelé branding all but forgotten in critical circles. Even Phil Jones was a little over a year ago heralded by a tabloid headline declaring that he was “already a legend”, despite his obvious limitations. Yet here we are again, foregoing sensible, honest analysis and making gargantuan promises of a young man still learning his craft.
It seems incredible to say but that is what we have in Jack Wilshere. He is yet to play his 100th competitive game as a professional footballer. His displays have admittedly been encouraging but not deserving of the hyperbolic praise showered upon them. They have certainly not been as consistent, mature or dominating as many would have us believe. His second half performance in Arsenal’s 2011 victory over Barcelona is held up as proof that he is as good as Xavi and Andrés Iniesta but that argument places too much importance on a single showing while conveniently ignoring the fact that until a coasting Blaugrana side switched off, Wilshere barely got a kick of the ball. While it is natural for a jingoistic press to promote home-grown talent - and the English are far from being the only offenders in that regard - perspective must be kept.
It was often said that Arsenal would noticeably improve when Wilshere returned from his injury, as if they were missing a player that offered a quality they otherwise lacked, but since his return results have been as erratic as ever. While he has not really been to blame - and given the length of his layoff, to expect immediate miracles is unreasonable - it is odd that a common response to defeat has been specifically to blame everyone connected with the club except Wilshere. A respected Arsenal blogger recently opined that if everyone at the club cared as much as ‘Jack’, then things would soon improve. That this notion even exists is bewildering.
Additionally, it is worth noting that with Abou Diaby on the pitch in 2012-13, Arsenal went unbeaten in the Premier League and only conceded one goal. Diaby’s most recent injury came at home to Chelsea, a game in which the Gunners crumbled as soon as he left the field. Simply put, Arsenal’s season has been shaped by the loss of the Frenchman, but despite his obvious importance he is held in nothing like the same esteem as his English colleague.
Of course, we know that this is the way it goes when an up-and-coming player makes the grade: criticism is kept to a minimum until he has definitively failed to live up to the hype, at which point all previous piled-up reservations come crashing down in an avalanche of emotional, revisionist denunciation. Only when Wilshere’s England fly home from the 2018 World Cup will we read article after article saying that, in fact, his tackling makes Paul Scholes’ look like Franco Baresi’s; that his temperament, or perhaps more specifically his penchant for squaring up to opponents - recently described as evidence of leadership qualities - is a weakness to be exploited; that his off-field conduct has not been that expected of a top-level athlete.
To clarify, saying a player is overrated is not the same as saying that he or she is bad. Jack Wilshere is not a bad footballer by any means. However, there are numerous playmakers the same age as him who have either done more or shown greater promise: Thiago Alcântara, Granit Xhaka, Christian Eriksen, Oscar and Isco, to name but a few. It is worth remembering that football is a global game and that being a Premier League starlet does not automatically mean a player is the finished article. Although it is extremely heartening to finally see a young, English midfielder comfortably playing a possession-based system, we should not be getting carried away. While it is unlucky for him to have missed an entire season at a crucial time in his development, the simple truth is that Wilshere is not quite as good as popular opinion suggests. To place him on such a high pedestal at this early stage does many a disservice - none more so than Wilshere himself