Wilshere showcases dizzying potential and frustrating limitations vs. Chelsea
LONDON -- It was a night in which we saw the good, the bad and the ugly of Jack Wilshere. But after so long in the football wilderness, the Arsenal midfielder will probably be more than happy to take the rough with the smooth.
He has gone from being one of the boy wonders of English football -- a player with the ability to keep and distribute the ball like Xavi or Andres Iniesta -- to an injury-jinxed enigma, someone who had become a forgotten man at his club, not to mention his international team.
But two days after his 26th birthday, Wilshere showed the best of himself, and the worst, in a pulsating 2-2 draw against Chelsea at the Emirates. The England star scored his first Premier League goal for the Gunners since May 2015.
The fact that it came in what was his sixth start in Arsenal's past seven games is perhaps more significant, with his consistency and fitness of far greater importance than his goal. But as ever with Wilshere, it was not all good news, and he could quite easily have been sent off by referee Anthony Taylor for diving after earning a first-half yellow card for a late, clumsy challenge on Cesc Fabregas.
So on a night when the story should have been about "Jack the lad" scoring a stunning goal to end his two-and-a-half-year Premier League drought, it ended with the focus on his indiscipline. The challenge on Fabregas was a typical Wilshere tackle: full-blooded, rash and ultimately self-defeating.
That he tackles like Paul Scholes used to do at Manchester United is not a good thing. The two players both have commitment running through their veins, but they could release an X-rated movie with the worst tackles of both of them.
And then there was the dive.
There have been worse examples of simulation, and referee Taylor's view was obstructed, but Wilshere dived in close proximity to Chelsea defender Andreas Christensen and should have been booked.
Had the yellow card been issued, it would have been his second of the game and, therefore, a red. And with it, a suspension would have halted his recent progress and left us all questioning, once again, whether Wilshere can be trusted when it matters most.
That is a question that Arsene Wenger and England manager Gareth Southgate will separately mull over in the coming months.
Wilshere will be offered a new contract by Arsenal, and rightly so, but whether he is good enough, and reliable enough, to play in Wenger's strongest XI in a cup final or decisive Premier League game remains to be seen. As for Southgate, it is difficult to imagine that he would discount a player of Wilshere's ability from his World Cup plans on the basis of reckless streak, but he will have to consider it nonetheless.
Yet ultimately, what happens next for Wilshere with club and country depends on what he can do with the ball at his feet. His failings and shortcomings will always be tolerated if he can rediscover the form that makes him a game-changer.
The goal against Chelsea was one of those positive moments -- a finish full of purpose and desire -- and he also helped dictate Arsenal's play with his passing and reading of the game. But for all of his ability, Wilshere needs to play alongside better players than Arsenal -- and perhaps England -- currently have in order to ensure that his weaknesses are not exposed by high-quality opponents.
Opponents such as Chelsea, who were more athletic and powerful than Wilshere, have been able to crowd him out when he lacks the support of those around him.
Wilshere would be a star at Barcelona or Manchester City because the power and quality of the players at the Camp Nou and the Etihad would make up for his lack of pace and physical strength. But in a team in which he has to move forwards and backwards, rather than sideways or in the final third, Wilshere sometimes looks as though he is walking in treacle.
It is a problem he could face with England at the World Cup, if he makes Southgate's squad at all, because of the athleticism of teams such as Germany, France or Brazil in midfield. Unless Southgate is prepared to surround Wilshere with legs and power, he will be wasting a selection by taking him to Russia.
But the fact that Wilshere is now in the conversation, for Arsenal and England, is progress in itself. After so many false starts and setbacks, he now has the chance to make a difference for club and country. He just needs to take it.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_