Wilshere is not a popular man.
Rival fans don’t like him because he’s precociously talented and plays for Arsenal. He’s also a pain in the backside; mouthing off and kicking players with the swagger of the runt in a gang of bigger bullies. When he's on the receiving end he doesn't take it so well.
He’s also unforgivably human, in that off the pitch he has behaved like a man in his early-20s, which gives other fans extra ammunition in the form of snaps on holiday smoking or drinking alcohol in imaginative ways.
For the new, cosmopolitan, Bundesliga-envying football fan he encapsulates the parochial, little England that they want to distance themselves from. Off the pitch there’s little refined or exotic about him. He had a kid at 18 and his sofa has got Union Jack cushion covers. He seems complacent, and maybe not serious enough about his craft.
People who get paid to talk or write about football attack him because few things upset them more than the notion of unfulfilled potential. For former players the story goes that this lad, who has an ability base that eclipsed theirs, is pissing it away. And since Jack was over-hyped when he was younger it’s all the worse now he’s struggling. He’s become a lightning rod for frustration at England’s ongoing difficulty to translate raw promise to success on the pitch.
It all means there’s a big market for criticism of Jack Wilshere. And the appetite is growing, whetted by lively minds like media-shy Paul Scholes to the extent that people say things that either aren’t true or only tell a small part of the story.
It’s insidious, and has seeped into the brains of many Arsenal fans. On the pitch, you’ll hear how he holds onto the ball too long, can’t make the right decisions and doesn’t know how to play through-passes. For a while, this was the kind of stuff that only England fans who never watched Arsenal matches would say. But now it feels like everyone’s coming out with it.
I think it's undeserved, and that it’s time to step away from the herd on this one.
Why has he been struggling? Injuries. That’s the long and short of it. There's no decline and no Gazza-style self-destruction.
Whether Jack was playing through pain, taking on too many games and ignoring the warning signs, or was just plain unlucky, the fact remains; you cannot blame him for being injured.
The injuries haven’t just hindered his development by keeping him off the pitch for months at a time; they’ve put him back to square one with each breakdown because of the makeup of his game. But he hasn't lost a thing.
There was something about watching Messi in the summer that rammed it home. Now, Messi has been lucky enough never to have to deal with recurring injuries until the last year. But once they started creeping in he didn’t look the same.
I can sense people guffawing, “You can’t compare Wilshere to Messi!” But despite the gulf in achievement and current ability there are comparisons to be made, chiefly in body build and in how they both play central, relying on a burst of pace and tending to take players on. Both players know what works for them, and have built their very different careers on running with the ball into crowded areas and forcing defenders commit.
Messi has been wrecking top-level defences for a decade now, but in the summer the idea was gaining momentum that he was past his peak, at 27. This remains to be seen of course, but the evidence in the summer was on the pitch for everyone to see. He ran into trouble time and again. He would take on players in areas that left his defence exposed. It was like he didn’t know when to dribble or play other people in. He influenced matches with goals, but there was an exceptional amount of waste for this reward.
My thinking is that that Messi plays on instinct honed throughout his career. He’s accustomed to dodging players with the ball at his feet. Crucially in the summer he had just come through a gruelling, ultimately disappointing season punctuated by small injuries. And this meant that his body couldn’t obey his brain. If it can happen to him it can happen to anyone.
Wilshere’s situation is Messi’s writ small, but aggravated by a longer history of poor health. To have a chance of playing with freedom he’ll keep trying to do what he knows, which is accelerating past players and either cleaving defences with through balls or playing one-twos on the edge of the area.
When he’s unfit this game is rendered ineffective. He’ll be tackled or fouled cheaply by the first man, or the defence will have time to get organised and close off the space. Because he’s off-rhythm he won’t time his distribution properly. Adjusting to the extra pressure of facing a defensive line that can see him coming, his passing in behind is wayward. Then, apparently mindful of his performance, he overcompensates and ends up trying to force opportunities that aren’t there. It all adds up to more cul-de-sacs and possession lost.
But things are changing. And the main reason is fitness. He is visibly faster now. Against Besiktas at home he was able to breeze past his marker. On a few occasions this left defenders with a decision to make; close him down and abandon a position, creating space for a runner, or give Wilshere time to pick a pass. This dilemma is why he’s so valuable when he’s up to speed.
The way Wilshere runs with the ball it’s just a fact that he will be fouled. But crucially, once he’s on form he’ll put stranded defenders in danger of committing yellow card offences, not ten-a-penny trips that slow us down. In the international on Wednesday he should have won a penalty from one of those driving runs people criticise so often.
Against Besiktas Wilshere didn’t sustain the performance past 60 minutes or so, but he caused mayhem when he drove at their defence. When they committed to tackling him he played the ball wide or even dribbled through to take a shot on goal. When they backed away he was able to clip it through, notably on one occasion to Alexis, who mis-controlled the pass.
This was the Wilshere that made his breakthrough four years ago. And it is no coincidence that he has re-emerged after an unbroken run of games and a few months injury and pain-free.
Wilshere’s travails have been a learning experience for everyone. The player has had to recognise that it’s not clever to try to play through pain. The manager has had to learn not to overload him with game-time.
When he comes good, I hope we learn a little more about all the different factors that contribute to performance, and how fitness and rhythm are more decisive for some than others.
I think a section of people will always hate Jack Wilshere. But now all parties are wiser I’m sure that for the next decade it will be made up of rival fans sick of the sight of him dribbling through their defence. Popular opinion turns as slowly as articulated lorry, so there still time before people notice. Why not get back on the right side of history?
You'll be able to say that you liked him when nobody else did.