England did not play well on Thursday night. The nature of their cautious (shapeless) 1-0 win over Slovenia may have been defined by their qualification imperatives, but that was too fragile a performance to be considered a pure tactical failure. Even at home and even with an ultra defensive central-midfield partnership of Jordan Henderson and Eric Dier, a limited Slovenian side still managed to move the ball up the field far too efficiently.
It was troubling. Given that a point was likely to be good enough to see his side top the group, Gareth Southgate was within his rights to prioritise security over entertainment. Ultimately, he achieved neither: England were insipid with the ball and terrifyingly porous without it.
Those are equal ailments but, given where the side now sits in the international hierarchy, the latter would seem more troubling. To achieve anything in Russia, England will first have to defend well and, as yet and even with that double-negative in midfield, there’s no real suggestion that they can do that.
However, there’s no appetite for that discussion. Perhaps because, beyond a last-minute structural shift and the immediate emergence of a new batch of outstanding centre-halves, there’s little Southgate can do. England have a goalkeeper short on confidence, two attack-first full-backs, and the “not quite there/no there anymore” duo of John Stones and Gary Cahill. Some problems are less curable than others.
So – instead – here we are talking about Jack Wilshere again.
After the game, Southgate was asked whether Wilshere’s international career was over and, understandably, he responded with a straight bat. England can’t afford to discard any midfielder who possesses a flicker of creativity and that’s evidently something the 47-year-old recognises. He didn’t go as far as to say that Wilshere is under direct consideration, but – as ever in the binary world of international press-conferences – by the following morning that had become his insinuation.
And didn’t that send a shiver down everybody’s spine. Just the plain sight of the player on the pitch had immediately made him part of the World Cup discussion.
Wilshere exists in an international territory which should no longer exist. Even now, after half-a-dozen serious injuries, he remains one of those players who only has to be superficially fit to be included. As evidenced by his charitable inclusions in both the 2014 World Cup and 2016 European Championship, it seems – again – that if Wilshere can drag himself to St George’s Park without straining or fracturing something, he will be given a plane ticket to Russia as reward.
Under different circumstances, there wouldn’t necessarily be anything wrong with that. International squads are supposed to be meritocracies, but England certainly isn’t the only country in which they’re not and where celebrity, past performances, and club profile play a part. However, even within that context Wilshere is an outlier. Rather than depending on a rich history of past performances, his status within English football seems (still) to depend on what it was assumed he would become. That this time it will all work out. That the dazzling theory of what he could be should blind everyone to their concerns about match-fitness and fragility. A preposterous situation, but one Roy Hodgson found himself in twice and which plenty of otherwise smart people encouraged him to create.
Injury, of course, has been a curse for Wilshere. From another perspective, though, that succession of breaks, strains and tears has been to his benefit. It is the permanent, transferable asterisk against his deficiencies. When he doesn’t influence a game, it’s because he needs more time. When he’s shown to be defensively ineffective, it’s attributed to a lack of fitness or lasting psychological damage. But there must, no matter how unkind, eventually be a discussion about what his limitations are. Perhaps the sky was once the limit for Wilshere, but that moment has been and gone.
His future prospects, also, seem to be determined by highly selective reasoning. In almost every other case, it’s generally accepted that serious injuries lower a player’s likely apex and, when occurring with such frequency, change the trajectory of a career. In this instance, though, it’s always been assumed that once he has recovered and had that elusive “run of games” Wilshere would fulfil his destiny. Somehow, in spite of his many operations and the stress placed on his body, he would become that fleet-footed 17-year-old again and start accelerating for the stars. But apply that assumption to almost any other player and it sounds terribly naive – even more so on the basis of his performances at Bournemouth.
The loan deal would ultimately – ironically, inevitably – end with him being carried off to the sound of White Hart Lane’s giddy schadenfreude, but for seven months he had the opportunity to restore his reputation. He was fit enough to play, almost guaranteed a place in Eddie Howe’s starting eleven, and doused in the elixir which was supposed to heal his career. But it had little effect: even before his season ended, Wilshere had been ineffective enough to lose his place in his side. The occasional nice touch and swift turn still decorated his game but, in the main, he was a plodding, peripheral presence who blended into the bottom of the table background. He made occasional telling contributions, most notably against West Ham in March, but failed to ever stand out in a side built mainly from Football League players.
That should have been the moment when he was recategorised by England. Not the point at which the door to the squad was permanently shut on him, but when the debate around his international future involved more than just his physical state. He must be a strictly civilian player now. No longer one of the protected species afforded the benefit of the doubt every two years, but someone who actually has to prove his worth and demonstrate his value above and beyond the incumbent players. This time, it has to depend on more than just a good hour against a weak Premier League team or his involvement in a couple of memorable goals. Absurd as it sounds to still be making this point in 2017, only players who are actually playing well should represent their country; low mark of footballing maturity though that may be, it’s one this nation is yet to reach. Coaches, writers, pundits, fans.
Inarguably, it’s in England’s best interest for Wilshere to defy everything above, to become the full-time ethereal midfield threat that he once threatened to become and to deliver some of the creativity which the side currently lacks. That can only be a vague hope, though, and not an expectation which influences selection.
After all, what he might have been doesn’t matter nearly as much as what he probably now is.