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 Posted by Rory Smith
Jul 23, 2014

Wilshere's evolution has stagnated

Given the circumstances, it was understandable that it slipped by almost unnoticed. It is worth revisiting, though, because it cuts to the core of the issue.

Jack Wilshere said it at an Arsenal press day in the middle of May. He was at the club's state-of-the-art Colney training base, meeting the media before facing Hull City in the FA Cup final. The questions did not just centre on Wilshere's desire to help Arsene Wenger's side end their nine-year wait for a trophy, though; there was not just the small matter of the World Cup to address, but also the 22-year-old's spat with Paul Scholes, no less.

You may remember it, although there are so many of these contretemps these days that it is impossible to keep track of them. They pockmark the season, diverting subplots used to add texture to the grand, overweening soap opera that is the Premier League.

Scholes started this one, suggesting that Wilshere had "not really gone on" since he was a teenager, admitting that injuries had not helped but claiming that the midfielder was no "better now than he was when he was 17."

Wilshere took exception, tracking down Scholes through Gary Neville -- he got in touch with the England coach on Twitter -- and then phoning the man he regards "as the greatest English midfielder ever" to ask him for an explanation. Scholes, Wilshere revealed, had offered a few pointers on where the youngster might like to improve and they had cordially parted ways.

Jack Wilshere's injury kept him in the shadows of the buildup to England's doomed World Cup campaign.

It sounds like something and nothing now, but at the time it was quite the drama. No wonder, then, that with that to discuss -- as well as the FA Cup and England's chances in Brazil -- a snatched comment from Wilshere about a tackle in an international friendly did not exactly make headlines.

"Looking back on it, it was probably 70-30 in his favour," said Wilshere. He was describing the tackle he made on Daniel Agger during England's game with Denmark in March. It resulted in Wilshere breaking a bone in his foot. It cost him the final two months of the league season -- returning only for a brief cameo against Norwich on the final day -- and would, if England's resources were not so desperately thin, have cost him his place in Roy Hodgson's squad for Brazil.

"But I still went into it," he went on. "That is me. I cannot change that, because it is a big part of my game. I know the manager at Arsenal has always said to me that it is important not to lose that bite in my game."

We shall return to the subject of the manager at Arsenal in a moment, but first, consider the previous sentence. Jack Wilshere cannot change lunging into tackles that endanger his own safety -- and, by extension, that of his opponent -- because it is "a big part of his game"? He knows that he spent two months out injured because he went into a challenge he recognises he was always going to lose and he does not think that perhaps it might be wise to reconsider his approach, that the incident might serve as a learning experience?

There can be no better explanation of why Scholes -- and others, including George Graham -- feel Wilshere has not kicked on.

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It was in 2008 that Wilshere first emerged, becoming Arsenal's youngest ever league debutant at the age of just 16. It is important to remember just how rich his promise was: here was the sort of player English football feared it could not produce, a sumptuously talented midfielder with a flawless first touch, extraordinary vision, impeccable technique. Wilshere was not just Arsenal's future, but England's, too.

And yet, just last week, Wenger admitted that Wilshere is now at the age where "you want him to move forward" -- this is the same sentiment as Scholes expressed in May, but doused in sugar -- but chose to reiterate his devout belief in the midfielder's "potential."

That is the problem, the proof that perhaps Scholes was right: six years after his debut, Wilshere is still discussed in terms of potential. There are mitigating factors for that -- the first being that he is still young, of course, and the second being the 17 months he lost to injury between 2011 and 2013 -- but the assessment of his tackle on Agger suggests some of the blame has to lie with Wilshere himself.

Those comments smack of a refusal to countenance the idea of change. If Wilshere does not see why he should not lunge into tackles, then how likely does it seem that he is open to the idea that perhaps he needs to refine other parts of his play, like becoming more tactically aware, more able to dictate rhythm and tempo, more consistently influential?

His statement hints at a player who has been lavished with praise from an early age and who -- whatever his public pronouncements -- has taken that acclaim to heart, who has decided that he does not need to improve, that he is worth the hype. It is true that Wenger has told him not to lose the bite in his game, but Wenger has also told him to be more careful as to when he uses that bite. That part of the lesson does not seem to have sunk in yet.

Wilshere's stagnation has been frustrating not just for Arsenal, but for England, too.

This is a different discussion entirely, but Wilshere is not the only English prodigy who is guilty of this, of hearing only what they want to hear and believing that they are the finished article: there is an argument that Wayne Rooney, for example, is not markedly different as a 28-year-old to how he was as an 18-year-old; Michael Owen never quite worked out that he might like to change his game as his body changed, either.

The difference with Wilshere is that he still has time. He should be aware, though, that it is not unlimited. This, as Wenger has identified, is a crucial season for him, not least because there were times last year when it was not immediately clear where he fits in to Arsenal's first-choice side. It was telling that Arsenal produced the finest 45 minutes of their campaign -- the first half against Napoli in the Champions League group stage -- with Wilshere on the bench.

That night, Mesut Ozil was deployed as a central playmaker -- where he will, no doubt, continue to be used this season -- with Mathieu Flamini and Aaron Ramsey occupying the deeper roles. That was the lineup that seemed to give Arsenal the best balance of any that Wenger selected last season.

He is in the market for a central midfielder this summer; the arrival of Alexis Sanchez has already increased competition for the forward roles. Wilshere might not see the need to alter, to tweak, to change his game, but it is becoming ever more urgent that someone makes it clear to him.

It seemed insulting, three years ago, when Pep Guardiola suggested that Barcelona's reserve sides were full of players just like Wilshere. He was wrong. Those Catalan teenagers will instinctively understand the need to continue to evolve. It is hard to escape the impression that Wilshere does not.

Rory Smith

A Spanish speaker, Rory is a well-respected football writer for The Times and has previously worked for the Daily Telegraph and the Independent.