“Jack Wilshere can really show us what he can do tonight,” said the wonderfully lilting Welsh voice of John Hartson as Wilshere slalomed past two Red Star Belgrade players. “This is his chance.”
Except that Wilshere couldn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know against Red Star on Thursday. We have now seen him play tidy passes, move past opposition midfielders and dig into tackles four times in the Europa League season, and so can be fairly confident in his ability to impress against teams ranked 18th in the Bundesliga, third in the Belarussian Vysshaya Liga and top of the Serbian Super Liga.
None of that will impress anyone who matters. Wilshere has managed 13 minutes in Arsenal’s ten Premier League games so far this season. He would swap all of those Europa League minutes for one start against Manchester City on Sunday, a chance to move forward rather than tread water in the shallow end.
This would not be so pressing were there not a ticking clock in Wilshere’s mind. In any other season he could grow into Arsenal’s first team over a period of months, but the countdown to next summer’s World Cup has begun. Wilshere’s Premier League absence was brought into sharper focus by Gareth Southgate’s decision to omit him from his latest squad to face Germany and Brazil later this month.
Time is running out for anyone who has not yet played for England under Southgate. Even given our relative paucity of central midfield options, Wilshere’s last cap was under Roy Hodgson as our national team reached its nadir against Iceland.
Nobody can be surprised by Wilshere’s absence. Southgate explained that he cannot pick a player who has not appeared regularly for his club, and he is right. There is no doubting Wilshere’s ability, but international football is not an arena in which to rid yourself of rust. Not against Germany and Brazil.
Well, almost nobody. “Personally, I think he’s ready,” said Arsene Wenger on Wednesday of his midfielder. “He was not three weeks ago but he is today. In every single competition, he’s ready to play. I don’t know how you can keep a super-fit Jack out of the England squad.
“I am convinced it would help Jack, personally. When you have been so frustrated so many times, every positive experience is welcome. It would be a positive as well because you have the World Cup and you have a new manager who has not called him up yet, so that for certain would play a positive part in his head.”
Probably the same way you can keep him out of the Arsenal team, Arsene, if the concept of a “super-fit” Wilshere is even anything other than a figment of our hopes and dreams. One will allow the other to follow. If you start picking him when it matters, so might England’s manager.
It’s a wonderfully quaint notion that being called up to the national team squad would “help” Wilshere, as if he is a charity case deserving Southgate’s love and care. Given that he has a World Cup to prepare for, Southgate’s latest squad contains several bold selections. Expecting him to be responsible for giving Wilshere “positive experiences” at a time when his manager is refusing to do so is more than a little rich.
The truth is that Wilshere had accrued goodwill with previous England managers that allowed him keep a seat warm in the squad for when his fitness irregularly coincided with England matches. He does not have that accrued goodwill with Southgate. Wilshere must earn his place as an equal, not a teacher’s pet.
After one Arsenal league start since May 2015, Wilshere deserves to be down the pecking order. In the build-up to a World Cup, a manager should pick on what is now, not what might be or has been. Harry Winks is the present and future; Wilshere must fight at club level to prove that he should not be consigned to England’s past.