Wasteful Jack Wilshere still falling short at Arsenal
As 10-man Arsenal cling on for their Champions League lives against Slaven Bilic's well-drilled Besiktas, Jack Wilshere comes away with the ball and, for a split second, the Gunners have a personnel advantage on their opponents. But -- not for the first time -- Wilshere is wasteful. He cuts in from the left into traffic rather than heading for the corner to run the clock down. A difficult reverse pass to Alexis Sanchez is attempted, fails, and Arsenal are back under pressure again. Anguished groans ring out from nervous Gunners fans.
As so often, Wilshere had tried to do too much, when calming down and playing the easy option was the better part of valour. At 22, he remains a long way from meeting the incendiary potential he once threatened. Arsenal may be into the knockout stages of the Champions League after their 1-0 win, but "Wasteful Wilshere" is becoming a troublingly frequent refrain.
"I was struggling at the end," he admitted afterwards, also confessing his luck at getting away with a clumsy collision with Ismail Koybasi in the first half. "I think I did [make contact], but that is up to the referee. I slipped as he tried to put the ball into the box."
Overall, Wilshere had actually played well on Wednesday night, his late fatigue down to expending all his energy for the cause. A chaotic surge helped provide Sanchez's winner but, too often, Wilshere's lack of wit can infuriate. He is still not yet the player that Arsenal and England fans wanted him to be. Thursday's England squad announcement will be the first without Steven Gerrard or Frank Lampard available for consideration for over 14 years. By dint of those international retirements, Wilshere jumps to the front of the queue without yet proving an inarguable candidacy.
"I feel from game to game he grows," Arsene Wenger said at his postmatch news conference. "He got some criticism recently and the best response is to show on the pitch that he's getting better and better.
"I think he has found a little burst to get away from people which he didn't have for a while. In the last two or three games you see it slowly coming back."
Wenger has never hidden his affection for Wilshere, back to the days he made him the club's youngest-ever league debutant in September 2008, at the age of 16 years and 256 days, and when he was a repeated star turn at the preseason Emirates Cup. After a spell on loan at Bolton, Wilshere's breakthrough season in 2010-11 saw Wenger struggle with temptation -- his precious jewel was playing too well to be protected.
Following a September man-of-the-match display in a 4-1 League Cup victory at Tottenham, Wenger struggled to keep the cat in the bag. "I am a bit cautious with him because you do not want to get too quickly and too early all the praise," he said at White Hart Lane that night. Wilshere would go on to be outstanding in a Champions League defeat against Barcelona, and be his team's only credit in a disastrous Wembley loss to Birmingham City in the League Cup final.
That summer saw the departure of Cesc Fabregas, a blow that looked as if it could be cushioned by Wilshere's potential. Instead, Wenger lost both as Wilshere broke down, missing the entire next campaign after requiring reconstructive ankle surgery. The midfielder became an apparition, more myth than man-child, retaining public visibility only through his passion for Twitter.
Seventeen months later, his return came, but ever since there has been a painful fragility about Wilshere. The sight of him limping away from an ill-judged challenge is all too frequent. In the case of March's friendly against Denmark and a collision with Daniel Agger, it wrecked his club season and left him short of sharpness when called upon for England in Brazil.
Wilshere has not reached the level required to get away with being caught smoking in a Las Vegas pool bar, as he was this summer. His image is currently of a talent in danger of being frittered away, another English prodigy who will not meet his full potential.
He should not be short of examples to follow: both Lampard and Gerrard matured into Champions League-winning captains, while Fabregas, despite his Barcelona return not quite getting off the ground, has shown how to metamorphose from teen prodigy to experienced campaigner. Across the dressing room, Wilshere might glance at Aaron Ramsey and see a player who took a long road to recovery from serious injury before becoming his club's key man after years of false starts and criticism.
Ramsey, just 14 months Wilshere's senior, is now the player that his sometime partner threatened to be: a box-to-box goal-scoring midfielder in the style of Lampard and Gerrard, with their leadership qualities, too. Wilshere has scored just nine goals in his 128 Arsenal appearances, a profligacy exemplified by an early miss on Wednesday. Having squirmed through the Besiktas defence with the burst that Wenger says is returning, he failed to make goalkeeper Tolga Zengin work, his shot dragging wide of the posts.
Wasteful Wilshere again. As his responsibilities grow, rough edges are far from being smoothed.