Here’s an interesting thing: just over eight years ago Arsenal thrashed Sheffield United 6-0 in the League Cup, famously fielding a team of gossamer-touch man-ducklings with an average age of 19, described by Arsène Wenger as the best crop of young players he’d ever had.
The seasons passed, the ducklings drifted. The idea of an unceasing production line, M. Wenger’s school of the performing artistic back-heel steadily congealed. There has even been a temptation among some supporters to look back and shrug a little at such heady times, a state of doomed excitement anthropologists might call The Frimpong Delusion or Sustained Collective Mérida Syndrome. Except. Not so fast. Look a bit closer and this week three members of that 6-0 squad – Aaron Ramsey, Francis Coquelin and Kieran Gibbs – also played for Arsenal in the Champions League against Paris Saint-Germain. Call it four if we include Theo Walcott, who was rested that night. Plus of course another Arsenal player, scorer of his first goal that night aged 16, will be in the stands at the Emirates this Sunday when his step-club visits the parental home.
At first glance it seems quite a Jack Wilshere thing to be sat watching, not quite in, not quite out, floating instead in some in-between space. But his absence is genuinely significant for both clubs. Wilshere is playing a bit further forward at Bournemouth. But as he finds his deeper gears he might still have exposed for the third time in a week the samey, mannered qualities of Arsenal’s current central midfield in the absence of chief central skill-goblin Santi Cazorla.
Had Wilshere played, the notion that Arsenal have somehow blundered by sending him to Bournemouth, as opposed to successfully reviving his career, might also have gained greater traction. Whereas in fact the real story here is something else: talent in ill-fating corners, the struggle to find a role and a rhythm, and of course the alchemical qualities of Eddie Howe.
Even now Howe has such a jarringly likeable persona – one fellow manager has described becoming slightly sick of the sight of Howe and his assistant Jason Tindall turning up at his club making friends and melting hearts, on the grounds that “they’re just too good looking” – it is easy to forget he did also play football to a high level.
As a 20-year-old Howe travelled with England to the 1998 Toulon tournament, where he lined up with Frank Lampard and Jamie Carragher against an Argentina team built around the prodigious Juan Román Riquelme. Argentina won 2-0 en route to winning the tournament. Howe never played for England again. Eight years later, as Riquelme enjoyed his peak almost-but-not-quite season in the knockout stages of the World Cup and Champions League, Howe was coaching Bournemouth’s reserves in League One.
It is, though, tempting to conclude Howe might just have got a lasting kick out of sharing a piece of grass with one of the great sui generis talents of the last 30 years. Albeit perhaps not at the time as Riquelme made Argentina’s opener with a supernatural reverse pass that left England’s last man (Eddie Howe) gasping, then took the corner from which some disastrous Emile Heskey chest control allowed Diego Quintana to score as his marker (again, Eddie Howe) looked on aghast.
Riquelme was already recognisably himself in Toulon: a sublime velcro-touch playmaker with all the natural knock-kneed athleticism of a bundle of bamboo poles tide up in a blue and white shirt and allowed to gangle around the place producing those extraordinary back-spun passes.
The greatest footballer of the modern age who didn’t really look like a footballer at all, Riquelme was also just the type English football would have struggled to process: the shambling body language, the boldness to keep the ball in tiny spaces mistaken for fannying about or insufficient “bombing-on” capacity. Oi! No! Juan! Get rid!
Although not everywhere of course. Coincidently it seems to be one of Howe’s own notable strengths to get the most out of gifted, technical types who might have drifted elsewhere.
All of which brings us back to Jack, who might not be a Riquelme-style maverick beanpole genius, but who remains a pure talent and a player whose defining feature to date has been interruption, false starts, category-confusion.
So much so it is already easy to forget how highly prized Wilshere was until recently. “Without doubt he can reach the height of the players we have here at Barcelona like Xavi and Iniesta,” Dani Alves said in February 2013, without anyone laughing, or turning him into an unforgiving internet meme.
The same month some fool devoted a newspaper report to comparing the two prized No10s in a friendly at Wembley. “Rather than Neymar the outstanding 21-year-old on the pitch was Wilshere,” I wrote. And he was great that day, surging about with a flex of those stubby legs, a centaur let loose among the horses, always able to absorb the ball into his stride and flick it on in one movement. Injuries have been a major problem, but so has positional vagueness.
Wilshere has been a victim in both senses. Winger, No10, goal-shy box-to-box surge merchant: the main response to his talents has been continuing confusion over how to make the most of them.
Wenger, as ever, has wanted him to go forward. This despite the fact Wilshere has one Premier League assist in the last 22 months and no goals in his last 27 club matches. I suspect Fabio Capello had him right, as did Roy Hodgson. It is the un-English deeper passing role, the ability to link and drive and rotate the direction of play in exactly the way England and Arsenal don’t right now, that is both Wilshere’s most promising position and the only one his fragile, surge-averse limbs are likely to let him play.
This week Arsenal came up against PSG’s Marco Verratti, a player of the same age who has simply been allowed to bloom as soft-shoe possession fetishist, a deep conductor, rather than some half-pint, breakable single-use Steven Gerrard variation.
There will be an urge to sneer a little at the idea Wilshere can run a game like Verratti. There is, for some reason, always an urge to sneer.
Wilshere has been a victim in this sense too, a player who just seems to draw a certain kind of slightly loaded scorn, deemed too flash, too tattooed, too everyday in his occasional blokey mistakes.
But from here his career should perhaps just be seen as a blank piece of paper, a full reboot. Wilshere has still only had three full seasons as a professional. He’s in the right place now. The picked-up pieces player, talent revived by some innovative, systems-based manager has been a theme of the Premier League season. Perhaps, eight years on from the rout of the Blades, we might even see an unusual, uneven, capricious English talent allowed to flower quietly in whatever direction it leans.