Can Jack Wilshere restore his reputation with Arsenal and England?
The lost boy of English football has another chance to restore his reputation. Jack Wilshere is back in the England squad for the friendly matches against the Netherlands and Italy. Will his performances be good enough to gatecrash Gareth Southgate's 23 for the World Cup?
Wilshere, 26, can also help salvage Arsenal's campaign. Increasingly, it appears Arsene Wenger's team can only qualify for the Champions League by winning the Europa League. Even though his future at the Emirates is uncertain, Wilshere has been one of the few Arsenal players whose effort and commitment in difficult times cannot be faulted. His performances may not be enough to earn him the contract he wants in North London, but the midfielder is certain to be in demand if the club allow his contract to expire in the summer.
It's certainly not the position you expected for Wilshere at this juncture in his career. He should be nearing the peak of his powers instead of trying to rebuild his career. He has been around a long time, he made his Premier League debut at 16 and was overhyped at the start.
In some ways, Wilshere appeared to be a throwback to a different age in English football. He developed the image of being one of the lads -- at Arsenal's FA Cup victory parade three years ago he taunted Tottenham Hotspur fans -- and was pictured drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes. Injuries hampered his development, while Roy Keane called him the "most overrated player on the planet." When Wilshere was sent on loan to Bournemouth last season, it appeared he was on the decline.
There are flaws in Wilshere's game. For example, he sometimes lacks positional awareness, becoming fixated on the ball and losing track of opposing runners when Arsenal cede possession. In the early years at the Emirates, he would respond to difficult periods in matches by making ostentatious, clumsy tackles, risking injury to both himself and rivals. The fans in the stands appreciated his effort, but the results were frequently counterproductive.
Yet there is so much to like about Wilshere's ability and attitude. He never hides.
More talented players in the Arsenal midfield go missing at times of intense pressure, but Wilshere is always looking to get on the ball. He shoulders responsibility-- sometimes to the detriment of his own performance -- and never shirks from the battle.
Once he has possession, Wilshere's main thought is to hurt the opposition in the most productive manner. He looks for a pass that will split defences. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang might have expected Mesut Ozil and Henrikh Mkhitaryan to be his main suppliers, but Wilshere is more alert to the possibilities of an early ball that can release Aubameyang. Wilshere brings a directness to Arsenal's game that Wenger's teams sometimes lack.
In assessing the development of Wilshere, it is worth comparing him to former teammate Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, two years younger but also perceived not to have fulfilled his potential at the Emirates. A move to Liverpool reignited his career. Under Wenger, many people were unsure about Oxlade-Chamberlain's best position and there were doubts about whether he could impose himself on games.
He has flourished under new boss Jurgen Klopp. The 24-year-old has a more defined role and is encouraged to play to his strengths. Wenger, by contrast, seemed to be eternally shifting Oxlade-Chamberlain around the pitch. The move to Anfield -- and the fresh perspective it brought -- has helped the player thrive again.
Likewise, Wilshere looks to be the sort of player who needs stricter boundaries on the pitch and could benefit from a higher level of coaching. His loan move to Bournemouth was not a success, but perhaps he requires better players around him and a better standard of instruction than Eddie Howe had the time to provide.
Wilshere is still an outside bet to go to Russia in the summer. Indeed, he should count himself lucky that he's played well enough in the past few months to even get a second look under Southgate. The England manager had appeared to rule out any chance of a call-up, but Wilshere's injury-free run, regular first-team football and improved diet have impressed Southgate enough to give him another opportunity.
Can Wilshere ever reach the heights once predicted for him as a teenager? It's unlikely, but he can still be an extremely effective Premier League player. He would rather remain at Arsenal but, with the team in a state of flux and Wenger's future uncertain, a move could be the best thing for him.
At a difficult time, Wilshere has regained some of his swagger. Jack the Lad has grown as a man and a performer.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC on the Premier League. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.