He may be the uninvited guest at his own reunion. Under other circumstances, Arsenal against Bournemouth would be billed as ‘the Jack Wilshere derby’. Not now. Wilshere lost his place in Eddie Howe’s team last season. He has slipped further and further down Arsene Wenger’s pecking order, a process that arguably began with Mesut Ozil’s arrival in 2013, becoming part curiosity, part afterthought.
His season has been notable only for an Under-23 game red card against Manchester City. He is yet to play a minute of first-team football. He surely won’t against Bournemouth on Saturday. Inquests abounded into what went wrong when Arsenal were thrashed 4-0 at Anfield two weeks ago. Few concluded the problem was that Wenger overlooked Wilshere. One of the great English talents of his generation went largely unmentioned.
And yet Wilshere is being missed. Not by Arsenal, even in the extended absence of the invaluable Santi Cazorla. He may be in their Europa League squad, but it remains difficult to envisage a return to his old levels of prominence. Wenger has a host of creators and plenty of central midfielders, even if he lacks a true partnership for as long as he cannot reunite Cazorla with Francis Coquelin. If he wants a left-footer who can get sent off in needless circumstances, he can always turn to Granit Xhaka. Cazorla is out of contract next summer, but so is Wilshere. They might depart together. It feels likelier that Nice’s Jean-Michael Seri will be at the heart of the Arsenal side than Wilshere in September 2018. Ankle injuries and broken legs have taken their toll. He may never fulfil his huge promise at the Emirates Stadium.
Yet if Arsenal could mourn the player he never quite became, England require the one he was a few years ago. Not a world-beater, but at least a playmaker capable of influencing games on the international stage. He was man of the match in a 2013 friendly win over Brazil and England’s outstanding player for much of the Euro 2016 qualification campaign.
He has not played for his country since the ignominious exit to Iceland. He has been tainted by it, understandably. Roy Hodgson took Wilshere to France after just 141 minutes of club football that season. It was too few. Wilshere was palpably not fully fit.
Hodgson was wrong. He was also right, as the victories against Malta and Slovakia nevertheless showed. Since Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard retired from international football, fittingly at similar points but without dovetailing perfectly, England have lacked anyone else capable of offering incisive passing from deeper, central roles.
Jordan Henderson’s more perceptive passes seem to come in Liverpool’s more fluent, fast game. Eric Dier is an essentially defensive presence. Jake Livermore has overachieved to progress thus far. England lack someone to knit the team together. They can appear disjointed. The situation is exacerbated by the absence of Adam Lallana, who can bring guile, and the way Dele Alli seemed used as a second striker for his movement off the ball, not as a No. 10 for his ability on it.
They showed pace but too little poise. As a side, they are physical enough, but insufficiently technical. They have runners on the flanks and in attack. There are times when they need an injection of culture to the midfield wasteland. There are precious few candidates. Perhaps Ross Barkley, if he operated deeper. Maybe James Ward-Prowse, though the same may be said of him. In any case, the Liverpudlian is not fit and the Southampton man is not starting at club level.
And Gareth Southgate was correct to place more emphasis on that. He was right to omit Wilshere last season. His form did not merit a place. It is tactically harder to accommodate him when there are legitimate questions if he has the mobility to operate in a pair and dangerous to bank on someone so injury prone. Arsenal can scour the international market for someone who allies class with reliability. England cannot. They are unable to pick Wilshere and unable to find anyone else who can bring a different dimension to the heart of the midfield.