There was a time, not so long ago, when Jack Wilshere was the best midfielder on the Emirates Stadium pitch. With a team of Arsenal's calibre, that's impressive enough, but when their opponents were Barcelona, well, it says a lot about just how brilliant he was. Wilshere was the complete package that evening, the then teenager playing beautiful football while the Gunners were in possession and pressing his opponents mercilessly when his side were without the ball.
Wilshere is a top player. He is an excellent player, not just Arsenal, but also for the national team. But I guess he is lucky because we have many players in the [B team] like him.
As it turns out, they didn't. Barca B's biggest stars, gems though they may be, remain unpolished: Thiago Alcantara is promising indeed but yet to have his real breakout and star defensive midfielder Oriol Romeu's career has yet to take off at Chelsea. In fact, two-thirds of the midfielders who started for Arsenal during their famous 2-1 win against the Catalans now ply their trade at the Camp Nou.
Wilshere wasn't just Arsene Wenger's great hope. He was England's too. Calm and composed, he looked more assured in the centre than any of the country's stalwarts, quickly upstaging both Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard in terms of his all-around play. He was supposed to anchor the midfield for both club and country for the next decade.
And then it all came tumbling down.
The story's even sadder if you read the quotes:
Missing the Under-21 tournament is not just about the Euros next summer. It is about me looking after myself. Over the last few weeks, I have been feeling tired and my GPS (Global Positioning System) results have shown that. It [sic] shows I am heading for an injury and that is the last thing I want especially heading into the euros...
It was Arsène Wenger and Tony Colbert, the fitness coach, who showed me the stats. It didn’t really sink in at first but it just kept going down, on a downward spiral. It scared me a bit, made me realise as much as I’m 19 and can keep going and keep going, there’s going to be a time when you’re going to hit the wall. Maybe that was coming. Over the last four games, after about 60 minutes, you feel a bit more tired than you did in January.
Less than a month later, Wilshere picked up a stress fracture in his ankle while on England duty. He hasn't played a senior match since. The road to recovery has been painfully slow, one rife with setbacks. The initial prognosis wasn't too onerous -- he'd miss the start of the season, and in September the 'fear' was that he'd be out for another few months.
Those few months stretched themselves into a full year. The Wilshere became a mythical beast, one whose return would mark the rebirth of the Arsenal and England midfield. He was a superb player when healthy, but his abilities are seen in a different light now that he's been out for so long. A long-term absence allows supporters to project woes onto that missing player, and they take on aspects that they perhaps never actually exhibited.
Would Wilshere have improved Arsenal's 2011/12 season and England's Euro 2012 campaign? Almost certainly, especially since Roy Hodgson's midfield consisted of a statue wearing a Steven Gerrard mask and a really confused badger. Will his eventual return -- the process began with 63 sluggish minutes in a under-21 match on Monday -- turn the Gunners back into the force they were two years ago, when, for a brief, lunatic spell, the quadruple seemed like a semi-reasonable dream? Not so much.
Everyone who enjoys watching football is hoping for Wilshere to make a full and quick recovery (he doesn't even have his Twitter account to distract him anymore), but the comparables don't look good. Arsenal fans know this better than anyone else. Their list of talented but injured midfielders is a long and painful read.
Abou Diaby was once Wenger's favourite player, but his recent career has been wrecked by injuries. A return this season has been sabotaged by yet another problem, and it's now difficult to imagine an Arsenal teamsheet that somehow fails to invoke Diaby as unavailable with some ailment or another. Tomas Rosicky was superb for Borussia Dortmund, brilliant for Arsenal, then spent eighteen months injured and hasn't managed to sustain top form since.
Even closer to home is the fate of Aaron Ramsey, who was once every bit the prospect that Wilshere was. In early 2010, a horror challenge by Stoke City's Ryan Shawcross broke his right tibia and fibula. Ramsey, then 19, managed to return to football that year, and has since reestablished himself as a regular in the Arsenal side, but has never looked like the same player who lit up the Premier League three seasons ago.
The football world is littered with players who were deprived of their peak years via injury, but there are still instances of players getting back to full strength after prolonged absences. Borussia Dortmund, for example, managed successfully reintegrate club captain Sebastian Kehl into a championship-winning side after what was essentially two years out.
To do so, they had to be exceptionally patient -- there's an argument to be made that allowing Kehl to shake off the rust in live matches was the root cause of BVB's embarrassing performances in the Champions League last year -- but Arsenal should learn from Jurgen Klopp's example. Because Wilshere, rather than being a quick fix for a pretty decent midfield, is a potential club icon, a player worth building around. Relying on him too quickly is asking for trouble.
At the end of the day, Wilshere will have to take this at his own pace. Assuming he makes his return in November, he'll have spent more than six percent of his life to date rehabbing from this injury. Any production he can give Arsenal this season is a luxury -- the real key is simply getting him back onto his feet and easing him into the Premier League once again. The Gunners once pushed Wilshere too hard and he paid the price. It's not a mistake they'll care to repeat.