Fabian Delph, Eric Dier, Jordan Henderson, Jake Livermore, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
If Jack Wilshere looked at that list of England central midfield options before kick-off in Belarus, he would have been right to think that if a triptych of ‘ifs’ aligned and he was ever fully fit, in Arsene Wenger’s Premier League plans and completely focused, he would walk into that England team with not one word being spoken in protest. Jack Wilshere is England’s most naturally gifted central midfield by an embarrassing distance.
Long-term readers of this website will know that we have long loved Wilshere. While you can watch Henderson play 50 times, remember one or two games and assume he largely did not disgrace himself, the Arsenal man demands your attention as he hungrily looks for the ball and plays on the half-turn, head on a swivel looking for space for that swiftly accelerated run or the movement of teammates. Always moving, always thinking, never hiding.
“In the moments when the pressure came on, he was the one that wanted the ball,” said Jermaine Jenas after Arsenal had predictably threatened to take a 25-minute 3-0 lead and throw it overboard. This game should never have been allowed to become difficult, but when difficulty inevitably came it was Wilshere who kept his head when others – both old and young – were losing theirs. It had been easy largely because Wilshere made it look easy, but he did not shirk responsibility when the game became harder and he became weary.
For the first 45 minutes, he was simply wonderful, the living embodiment of an Arsenal style in danger of extinction, oozing pace, accuracy and effortless dynamism. This was BATE in 2o17 rather than Barcelona in 2011 – and that means all superlatives come with caveats – but we can only judge Wilshere on the games he is trusted to grace. On that evidence, we will soon be seeing him in the Premier League again.
Had Arsenal qualified for the Champions League, Wilshere may well have been shoved rather than eased towards the exit door, with even Arsene Wenger close to losing his almost-interminable patience with a player who had promised so much but delivered temperamentally. Had Arsenal been travelling to Barcelona rather than Barysaw, Wenger may have had to tearfully tell Wilshere that he could offer him no more than Carabao Cup football. But last season’s Premier League failure has brought this season’s Europa League chance.
Arsenal have a squad built to compete on two fronts, as long as one of those two fronts is not the Champions League. They are blessed (or cursed) with a coterie of players like Olivier Giroud, Theo Walcott, Mo Elneny and Per Mertesacker who are not quite top-four standard but should comfortably take Arsenal through to the latter stages of the Europa League. A fit Wilshere is a class above all those players; he just needed a stage to demonstrate that superiority.
“I just pray that he is not hampered anymore,” were the plaintive words of his manager after hope was again ignited in Belarus. Thursday nights are now crossed-fingers nights for Wenger, Arsenal fans, Gareth Southgate and anybody who loves to see wonderful footballers achieve their potential.