Would Jack Wilshere Be Worth a Punt for One of the Premier League Big Boys?

Alex Dunn@@aldunn80Featured ColumnistJuly 21, 2017

Jack Wilshere: Down and probably out at Arsenal but good enough to thrive elsewhere?
Jack Wilshere: Down and probably out at Arsenal but good enough to thrive elsewhere?Julian Finney/Getty Images

There is no little irony that in a summer when the future of English football has been celebrated as being in ruddy health, the most natural player of his generation finds himself persona non grata at the unripe age of 25.

England's young lions have been cast in a rich golden hue after winning the FIFA U-20 World Cup, European Under-19 Championship and Toulon Tournament, while the under-17 side finished as runners-up at the Euros. That the offseason nadir was the under-21s only reaching the semi-finals of the same competition paints a portrait of virile promise. 

There is nothing lions love more than a sacrificial lamb.

Enter stage left Arsenal's wheezing Peter Pan figure Jack Wilshere. A player who has never quite grown up but is quietly starting to grow old.

Once widely thought of as one of Europe's best emerging talents, spoken of with wide-eyed wonder among luminaries not easily impressed, such as Pep Guardiola, Xavi, Dani Alves, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Paul Scholes, Wilshere now finds himself staring down the barrel of a career badly off-piste. And the last thing to be advised is putting Wilshere on skis. He'd make Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards look like Woody Allen. Caution is not his strong suit. 

Since a glorious breakthrough campaign at Arsenal in 2010/11 that saw him named PFA Young Player of the Year and make the Team of the Year, he has made just 151 appearances for club and country in the intervening six seasons. A remarkable 982 sick days over this period has meant a paltry 93 Premier League matches have been put on the clock.

Some 29 of those arrived last term on a season-long loan at Bournemouth that, although not disastrous, was for all intents and purposes unsatisfying for all parties. At a time when manager Arsene Wenger is under intense pressure to shake things up at Arsenal, it's not hard to understand why he finally appears ready to cut the umbilical cord. 

Wenger has been criticised for overusing Wilshere in 2010/11—arguably with some justification—given the midfielder played 49 times for Arsenal in all competitions. Essentially it was the equivalent of throwing a porcelain doll into the back of a removal van without bubble-wrapping it first and hoping for the best. It's fair to say it didn't make the journey unscathed.

However, to scapegoat the Frenchman in hindsight for negligence would be to forget just how intoxicating Wilshere was back then. To expect his manager not to pick him would be to invite Warren Beatty to a party of the world's most eligible women and blindly hope he'd make do with a nice drink and chitchat. Some things are just too tempting; picking Wilshere at the time was one of them.

Not anymore, it seems. Wilshere's Twitter bio reads as though there is more chance of Harry Kane pitching up at the Emirates this season. It's real Nowhere Man stuff, with Arsenal conspicuous in absence. He describes himself as a "professional footballer" and "Nike UK athlete." It's the type of cold description Patrick Bateman might have put on a business card were he a footballer as opposed to a sociopath.

How can a player cited by Xavi as being "the future of English football" just two years ago, according to ESPN FC (via the Telegraph), be courting so little interest going into the final 12 months of an Arsenal contract his club seemingly has zero intention of extending?

Sky Sports' report of a recent £6 million bid from Sampdoria has a chilling echo of Lee Sharpe's career curve. While it's arguable Sharpe did some of his best work post-Manchester United on Celebrity Love Island, let us collectively pray to the footballing gods that a disillusioned Wilshere does not spend the 2017/18 campaign in Mallorca being subjected to a live lobotomy while having coconut oil rubbed onto legs designed for so much more. If he goes the same way as David Bentley, it will be nothing shy of a travesty.

Though Arsenal have seemingly given Sampdoria's bid short shrift, Sky Sports' Kaveh Solhekol reported earlier in the week an offer of £9 million could be enough. That barely covers a matchday ticket, pie and pint (of Prosecco) at the Emirates. You probably couldn't buy Gunnersaurus at that kind of money.

Let us for a moment consider the current going rate. Liverpool's 23-year-old midfielder Kevin Stewart is dropping down a division to join Championship side Hull City for £8 million, according to Chris Bascombe of the Telegraph, having made 20 appearances in total during his time at Anfield. His showreel does not include virtuoso performances against Barcelona, Brazil and Bayern Munich either; nor does it include a pair of Premier League goals of the season.

A hysterical transfer market that over the summer has introduced into football's rich lexicon the term "Premier League premium" may finally have unearthed its first potential bargain. CVs that include a wealth of UEFA Champions League experience and 34 England caps by the age of 25 are few and far between.

Even withstanding a Daily Star report that has boyhood club West Ham United being quoted a fee of £20 million (a number somewhere between the two could likely be where the actual price sits), there has to be real punter's value in backing Wilshere.

Bournemouth, it seems, beg to differ. On paper, the personable-to-the-point-of-being-gentle Eddie Howe, the Premier League manager most likely to make a cameo as a kindly porter in Casualty, should have been the ideal manager to get Wilshere back on track during his South Coast sojourn. Instead, there's a pervading sense the pair perhaps never quite clicked. From the outside peering over the fence, their relationship seemed pleasant enough but never anything more than that. Think brother-in-laws with only one thing in common.  

His time at Bournemouth was perfectly bookended by two games against Tottenham Hotspur. The first in October, a goalless draw at the Vitality Stadium, saw him complete a Premier League match for the first time in a little over two years. Some 771 days had passed since he had last done it, in Arsenal's 2-2 draw with Manchester City in September 2014. Not for the first time, Wilshere was reduced to a punchline. Mesut Ozil creating 227 chances over the same period was widely reported, and it will not have been lost on the player as he weighed up his chances of making it back at his parent club.

Then in April, at White Hart Lane of all places, he suffered a hairline fracture of the left fibula that he is still easing his way back from now. Here was Wilshere's career in a nutshell. A fleeting moment of promise followed by football's fickle finger of fate flicking him the bird. The comedown, it seems, always lasts longer than the high. 

Wilshere, to his credit, had spoken at the start of the season of how he had analysed his game and accepted it needed significantly modifying. 

"I know my body better than ever now, I know what it can and cannot do," he said in early August, via The Independent. "It just can't go into ridiculous challenges, especially in training."

To quote Mark Twain: "When ill luck begins, it does not come in sprinkles, but in showers." Wilshere wears a rain mac on the beach. 

It stands to reason Arsenal would rather sell him to West Ham than a rival. Turkish newspaper Fanatik (h/t Turkish Football) reported Super Lig club Antalyaspor hold an interest too. With respect to the aforementioned, even withstanding a less-than-stellar stint at Bournemouth, it seems a little premature in his career for him not to be on the radar of at least a couple of the top seven or so.

After all, it was only in February when Manchester City manager Guardiola spoke so warmly of the player it seemed he would likely try to adopt him over the summer, even if his employers balked at signing him, as reported by the Telegraph.

"I remember in Barcelona and that year (2011) we played Arsenal.

"He left a massive impression when he came. A high, high level. I know the problem with Jack Wilshere was just the injuries.

"He's lucky to play regularly for one season and he is going to be back to being one of the best midfield players in England by far. He's quality, he's smart and has the quality on the ball.

"He has a special quality with the ball, dribbling as a holding midfielder to attack central defenders—it's not easy to do that.

"He's a little bit like Dembele at Tottenham. They have quality to pass, pass, pass and then immediately destroy the defensive structures. I'm so happy he's back and he's playing regularly."

Does that sound like the description of a player available for anywhere between £10-20 million? Grooms have been known to give less heartfelt speeches about their bride.

Xavi is similarly enamoured (via The Independent): "Technically he is the sort of player that Pep loves—his only problem has been injuries—and if it wasn't for the issues he has had with injuries, I am sure he would be one of the best midfield players in the world."

To his detractors, Wilshere's magnum opus against Barcelona in 2011 that Guardiola refers to, when he bossed Andres Iniesta and Xavi in Arsenal's 2-1 win over the Catalan giants, has created an obscured view of his talent. Like a mirror in a funfair, it was stretched out of proportion. Overhyped underachievement tends to be the English way.

In those early years, though, it was hard to keep your eyes off this snarling paradox. He would routinely throw himself into challenges as though it were a personal affront to him if his opponent did not end up as crumpled as a discarded crisp packet. With a loose mouth and chippy demeanour, Wilshere gave the impression of being a top-off England fan with a touch of sunstroke, a belly full of sangria and a general vendetta against humanity. He was like John Bull on amphetamines. This caricature is how many still see him.

But then he'd get on the ball, and within seconds it would become clear Wilshere was not just the most un-English English player of his generation but potentially one of the best. Don't trust me, that's how Xavi described him. He was shot out fully formed, the type of natural footballer England just doesn't produce.

A master at turning the ball over, he'd nip in front of his opponent and then, with his chest out like Mick Jagger, surge forward. It was impossible not to draw comparisons with Paul Gascoigne. Constantly recycling the ball, he was a human protractor. A master at making angles, his body would shift shapes to become a wall to bounce passes off. Everything was one- and two-touch, intuitive.

Sportswriter Paul Hayward, working for the Guardian back then, compared him favourably to Paul Scholes and was so gushing in his praise of his performance against Barcelona one suspects he wrote it while wearing an Arsenal shirt emblazoned with "Wilshere 19" across the back:

"The difference is that Scholes padded on to the scene in a League Cup match at Port Vale while Wilshere, at 19, already appears indistinguishable from Barcelona's two best midfielders, who took silver and bronze behind Lionel Messi in Fifa's world footballer of the year award. In Arsenal's 2-1 victory over Pep Guardiola's team Wilshere could have worn the livery of either side, such was his range of passing, his courage in demanding the ball in tight spots, his confidence and sense of belonging."

Is it impossible Wilshere could wear the livery of a Guardiola team next season? Or if City don't want him, what is the chance of a cut-price move to Manchester United? He's the type of player Mourinho loves, after all; just imagine the pair of them expressing synchronised incredulity after Wilshere puts a former Arsenal team-mate deep into the South Stand at Old Trafford with a knee-high tackle. Wilshere and Ander Herrera in tandem would be like throwing a can of deodorant onto a bonfire.

On Merseyside, both Liverpool and Everton are hardly strong enough in the centre of the pitch to dismiss the idea out of hand either. Let's leave Tottenham out of it for now.

Few doubt that Wilshere is good enough to mix at the highest level if he could stay fit and get a run of games. That's a claim that can be made by few footballers. For all the talk of no one of real note wanting him, it will be one playing on the minds of more than a few managerial big hitters that may just fancy the challenge to get him back to the level he once was.

It was only in September when Wenger reassured him a new contract would be on the table by the turn of the year. He even went on to say he saw Wilshere as not just a future Arsenal captain, but a manager too. Bold. It was probably only fear of possible deportation that prevented him from suggesting Wilshere was also the obvious candidate to lead Brexit negotiations in Brussels.

Talk has been of relations having deteriorated between the pair this past 12 months, but it is abundantly clear Wenger holds both genuine affection and admiration for Wilshere. For all their differences, he perhaps sees a little of himself in a player he has always defended to the point of indulgence when he has been involved in unsavoury incidents away from the pitch.

It is this wanton compulsion to throw himself into eminently avoidable situations, a bit like his tackling, where Wilshere loses sympathy with many. Injured footballers in nightclubs is always a juxtaposition likely to cause outrage, while if you stick a microphone in his hand invariably former British prime minister Tony Blair gets giddy about the possibility of finding a weapon of mass destruction.

Wenger is no bad judge of a character, though.

"Certainly, one day, he will be in my seat. He has a real football brain and understands football. It's in his genes," Wenger said, per the Guardian.

"I see him in the future at this club, of course. He will spend his life in football, he is a football man. He has an eye on everybody—it's in him. You have that or you haven't got it, but he is a real football man."

By April this year, the mood had hardened at the Emirates. Wenger, when quizzed on Wilshere's future, spoke of consistency being the most important quality needed to succeed at the top level. It was like the producer of Kojak saying the most important thing for an on-screen detective to have is hair. Here was Wilshere's writing-on-the-wall moment.

Just a cursory look at Opta's career stats for the player makes pretty damning reading. It is consistent only in its inconsistency. That's probably not what Wenger was getting at.

In his debut season in 2010/11, he made 35 Premier League appearances. The following year, injury kept him out entirely. In 2012/13, he figured 25 times; the following season, similarly there were 24 appearances. In 2014/15, though, there were just 14 appearances; in 2015/16, there were a meagre three.

Prior to his leg break last season, Wilshere proved he could stay fit (he started 22 league games and made another five substitute appearances), which is a sentence you could only write about Wilshere with a straight face. What he failed to do was convince Arsenal they were wrong to let him leave in the first place, or for that matter, compel Bournemouth to attempt to make the deal permanent.

Given the English psyche towards its footballers tends to be unsympathetic to the point of being pathological—all-time Manchester United and England leading goalscorer Wayne Rooney's story is, for many, one of unfulfilled potential—it's no surprise Wilshere is largely given short shrift. A kid with all the talent in the world but not the body to carry it should be seen as tragic; largely, it evokes irritation.

Cast your eye over his Twitter mentions and it would appear a majority have long since dismissed him as a lost cause. He is, for many, a joke figure. Football is nothing if not a cruel mistress.

Anyone who has read Paul Lake's at turns heartbreaking and harrowing account of his Manchester City career waylaid to chronic injury, I'm Not Really Here, might in quieter moments reflect on Wilshere's own struggles more with a tear than a sneer. 

Lake ruptured his cruciate ligament in his right knee on three separate occasions in an era when that was the injury all footballers dreaded the most. In a different way, football was even more ruthless back in the eighties than it is now. City were not keen to foot the bill to send him to America for specialist treatment. By the time he had convinced them it was worthwhile, the surgeon in Los Angeles told him (h/t the Guardian), "If I'd seen you straight away, you'd have been back playing by now."

At 27, a player who captained City at 21 and was widely tipped to one day skipper his country, too, was forced to call time after one failed comeback too many. Lake recalls how he would turn up for the annual club photo call before the start of each season feeling, "like a spare part, like I was gatecrashing a private function." He would slope off to the toilet when watching City matches and sit with his head in his hands.

By the time he finally conceded defeat and let go, Lake was as broken mentally as he was physically. Talk of injured players "stealing a living" has always been boorish. It takes on a darker side when Lake discusses being diagnosed with clinical depression.

That's not in any way to speculate on Wilshere's psychological state in the spells when he has been sidelined but rather to emphasise how it is easy to forget the vast majority of footballers are just kids getting paid to do what they love. Take it away from them, and it often yields some dark times.

Though a man of unerring prescience, it is unlikely Italian writer and philosopher Umberto Eco was referring specifically to Wilshere when, in 1988, he said to the Paris Review, "All men are obsessed with their own youth."

Yet with football seemingly having fallen out of love with a player perennially caught in the peripheral space between adolescence and adulthood, it would be a surprise if Wilshere does not look back on those gilded early years with a yearning of the melancholic variety. He made his Premier League debut aged 16 years and 256 days and won his first England cap at 18 years and 222 days. It has been an accelerated career, but it would be wise for Wilshere to explore every avenue before taking it off again now the handbrake is on.

There's no doubt he will be hurting. As any Arsenal supporter will attest, it is hard to think of a modern-day manager with more patience than Wenger. He has always been a man unstinting in his belief the greatest value is to be found in moulding young minds and bodies rather than buying straight off the shelf. He has had Wilshere under his watch since the Stevenage-born, but Hitchin-raised, midfielder was nine years old.

To have Wenger give up on you as a player unlikely ever to fulfill early promise must take some coming back from. When the Frenchman arrived in England in 1996, it is said he was disappointed to learn 1970s boy wonder Peter Marinello was no longer at the club, as he always fancied he could have got something out of a player whose flame burned out faster than a cheap supermarket candle. 

Wenger probably still weighs up every summer whether it's worth getting in Freddy Adu for a trial. Cherno Samba and Sonny Pike both still get butterflies when their phones flash up a number with a north London dialling code.

The next time Wilshere's does likewise, it could be his manager on the other end of the line informing him of a bid having been accepted. 

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