From phenom to oft-injured fringe player, the stages of Wilshere's career
This article first appeared on ESPN FC on July 28 and has been edited.
Jack Wilshere is back in contention for a first-team place at Arsenal after the leg fracture that prematurely ended his season-long loan at Bournemouth. Whether he can cement his place, however, is a subject of serious speculation.
A chance in the Carabao Cup may mean that the next few weeks are a vital juncture in the career of a 25-year-old who once looked to have it all.
Jewel of the Emirates
At Blackburn Rovers' Ewood Park in September 2008, Wilshere, aged 16 years and 256 days, became Arsenal's youngest ever league debutant. His achievements at representative levels had given advance notices of an Englishman with similar capabilities to Cesc Fabregas, who he had supplanted for that club record.
Wenger, though compared him to a Gunners legend of a different vintage, someone then running the club's youth academy. He said: "People tell me he is a bit like Liam Brady, because he has good balance and change of direction. I believe later he will be a central midfielder or play behind the strikers."
Arsenal's loan star
Rave reviews during Arsenal's preseason Emirates Cup tournament in Aug. 2009 had thrown an even sharper spotlight on a 17-year-old Wilshere, already looking ripe to be part of Wenger's first team.
He was loaned to Bolton Wanderers in January, managed by Owen Coyle, who preached the same style of football that Wenger adheres to. There, he received vital Premier League experience, and Bolton wanted to keep him for another season. "The fans can see what a great young English talent he is," said Coyle.
Coyle did not get his wish. Wenger had decided it was time he unleashed Wilshere. The teenager performed like a midfield general from the start. "I'm a bit cautious with him because you don't want to get praised too early," said Wenger after Wilshere shone during a 4-1 League Cup thrashing of Spurs in Oct. 2010.
Arsenal's manager could not resist using someone who quickly looked like his team's heartbeat. A move to Barcelona beckoned for club captain Fabregas. Wilshere played 49 matches in that 2010-11 season, and by its conclusion had won a place in England coach Fabio Capello's team.
Injuries begin to curse
Perhaps Wenger should have exerted that caution, and maybe that golden season will remain the best we see of Wilshere. Arsenal did not get to soothe the loss of Fabregas with Wilshere. Instead, they lost both for the 2011-12 season, one which embraced disaster, including an 8-2 loss in August at Manchester United.
Wilshere suffered a stress fracture of an ankle playing against New York Red Bulls in the Emirates Cup, and was not seen again until Oct.2012, when, playing with his old zest and bravery for 67 minutes, he was man of the match against QPR. There has been a gap of 542 days since his previous competitive Arsenal appearance.
A boom and bust cycle
"All I can do now is prove to them that I can get back to the level I was at before, to show them what I can do," said Wilshere after that QPR game. And he has often since shown glimpses of his rare talent, though blemishes have appeared just as often. Wilshere became a staple of tabloid paparazzi stings; the sight of him with cigarette in his mouth while out partying appearing too often.
And his on-field bravery was also a problem, putting fragile limbs in danger. Over the five years that followed his 2010-11 breakthrough, he would suffer further ankle surgery at the end of the 2012-13 campaign, a broken foot in March 2014 that reduced his chances of contributing to England's World Cup, four months out during 2014-15 after a heavy challenge by Manchester United's Paddy McNair, and then a fractured fibula that kept him out for all but three Premier League sub appearances at the conclusion of the 2015-16 campaign.
Despite that strictly limited involvement, England manager Roy Hodgson, like Capello, always had faith in Wilshere's ability. Likewise, Wenger has always shared that same admiration.
Hodgson kept a midfield place open in his Euro 2016 squad for Wilshere, but it was a gamble that flopped, amid many others made during a hapless campaign in France. In an awful team performance against Slovakia, Wilshere played 56 minutes in which he revealed his lack of sharpness, and was an even more ineffectual half-time substitute in Nice, where England suffered the catastrophe of losing 2-1 to Iceland.
Back at Arsenal in the summer of 2016, Wilshere found himself down the pecking order among Wenger's midfield options. He asked for a loan move to recover the rhythm of playing regular football. Crystal Palace thought they had their man last August, only for Wilshere to choose Eddie Howe's Bournemouth over Selhurst Park, and also Roma, an offer which Wilshere seriously considered.
And at Bournemouth, something of the old Wilshere appeared, with his passing range not dulled by the long absences. During 27 appearances, he also picked his battles a little better. But then came that injury curse again, and another fracture, this time suffered at Tottenham in April, where he was jeered from the field by fans of a club he has tormented both on and off the field.
Interest from Sampdoria was dulled this week after Arsenal's pricing and Wilshere's wages nixed a move to Serie A. Turkish club Antalyaspor also showed interest, while another Premier League loan move has been cited as a possibility, with Palace linked once again.
With a single year remaining on his contract, Arsenal may be willing to cash in for the right price, Sampdoria did not meet that at £6 million plus add-ons. Wenger this summer has stated his belief that Wilshere will stay on to fight for a first-team place, but his skillset may not suit rejigged Arsenal's new 3-4-3 formation.
There is a strong likelihood of Wilshere leaving Arsenal and the club never enjoying the player that might have been.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.