Jack Wilshere could yet have big impact for England and Arsenal this season
As England laboured to the most uninspiring World Cup qualification imaginable with a late 1-0 win over Slovenia at a half-empty Wembley on Thursday night, paper planes drifting through the air as an ironic riposte to the paucity of entertainment on display, some of the country's World Cup hopefuls survived the night with their reputation enhanced. They just weren't on the pitch.
Adam Lallana was one; Ross Barkley another; and even Ruben Loftus-Cheek too. Basically any semi-ambulant English midfielder with the ability to pick out a forward pass and bring some much-needed creativity to a team devoid of any imagination.
In fact, such is England's desperation in this matter, the biggest winner in all might have been a player without a single minute of Premier League football this season. The oft-discussed but rarely-seen Jack Wilshere.
According to a report in Saturday's Daily Mail, Southgate "strongly considered" naming Wilshere in his squad for the Slovenia game despite his absence from the league campaign thus far. After Jordan Henderson and Eric Dier were wielded like two blunt instruments from deep at Wembley, neither able to transcend the restrictions of a holding role, Southgate's opinion on Wilshere is likely to have gained further clarity.
As he said in response to a question about the Arsenal man: "We're in a position where there's no way we would dismiss any creative player. But people have to be playing and have to be playing at a good level."
Before anyone gets too carried away, the second of those two sentences is doing a veritably Herculean act of heavy lifting. "People have to be playing" -- and that, for Wilshere, is the perennial problem. His injury history needs no reintroduction and its abundant nature should guard against any firm conclusions, eight months out from a World Cup. His career remains a tale of arrested development.
And yet, it would also be wrong to disregard the evidence of the season so far. Wilshere is yet to make his Premier League return for Arsenal but the secondary cup competitions have been a very useful exercise. In back-to-back midweek matches towards the end of September, he was Man of the Match in both the 1-0 League Cup win over Doncaster and the 4-2 Europa League win over BATE Borisov.
In the former he played in the centre of midfield and in the latter he started as a member of the front three. The common thread through both games was his ability to breach the defensive line and spread the ball about with impudence. It is clear why an impoverished England would yearn for the return of a player of his calibre -- it is why Roy Hodgson took him to Euro 2016 despite Wilshere playing only 141 minutes that season -- but for Arsenal the question is rather less clear cut.
Mesut Ozil has for years been the biggest barrier to Wilshere's Arsenal chances, beyond his own frail body of course, and while Martin Keown believes that the German, like Wilshere out of contract next summer, "in some departments [has] already left -- psychologically, mentally, he's already left the football club," the fact remains that Ozil is an Arsenal player for now. When fully fit again, he will surely start matches.
And if Arsenal have been gifted a glimpse of a post-Ozil future, it was in the impressive 0-0 draw away at Chelsea as Alex Iwobi defended from the front at Stamford Bridge, pressing avidly from his position in the front three in a manner which is totally anathema to Ozil.
That was the result, and the performance, which begged the question as to whether Arsenal are better without a player whose capacity for chance creation is greater than any other member of the squad, yet whose lacklustre approach to the defensive side of the game can undermine the team, in the tougher games at least.
Perhaps, though, this is Wilshere's USP: he is more like a blend of the two players, boasting the best of both worlds. He is far more assiduous in his defensive work than Ozil, yet possesses much more natural ability and technique than Iwobi, who for all his recent improvement still seems a player whose career at Arsenal could go either way.
Wilshere's renaissance is still in early bloom and Arsenal hardly need to be reminded that his career is liable to be put on hold at any moment. But his recent return to prominence is still an important step for a player who was linked with an insulting move down to the Championship with Aston Villa in the summer. Wilshere could yet have a major impact for his club, and country, this season.
Tom is one of ESPN FC's Arsenal bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @tomEurosport