Eddie Howe seemed baffled. When he was asked about Jack Wilshere’s omission from the England squad to face Germany and Lithuania, the Bournemouth manager said: “Am I surprised? Yes because of the quality of the player Jack is.”
Howe’s confusion would be a little easier to take at face value if Wilshere had been in the Bournemouth team recently. Instead, the Arsenal loanee was on the bench for their trip to Old Trafford at the start of March and after that creditable 1-1 draw, that was where he stayed for the next two games. Bournemouth won both of those, 3-2 against West Ham and 2-0 against Swansea.
Wilshere’s exclusion from the England squad and the Bournemouth team are not down to his spell on the south coast being disastrous. For the most part he has performed well in an inconsistent team and his spell on the bench could be explained by a small knock picked up against West Brom, and a tactical switch to a 4-4-2, for which other players have been deemed preferable.
“I want to play every minute, that is why I came here,” he said after the West Ham game. “But I have always been a team player. Wherever I have been it has been the team first — and last week they put in a good performance.”
He’s saying all the right things, but both omissions are another sign of a career that seems to be drifting. When he first arrived on the scene, a 16-year-old kid coming through the ranks at Arsenal, he was seen as the player England had been waiting for: a technically gifted passing midfielder who had a little spark and toughness, the sort that could control a game.
The hype had plenty to do with timing. Wilshere, 25, made his Arsenal debut in 2008 and became a Premier League regular with Bolton in 2010, around the time when Spain and Barcelona were dominating international and club football with all the qualities the English felt they lacked.
Wilshere looked like the antidote to that, a boy who could do the best tiki-taka impression of anyone around at that time. But here we are nearly a decade later, and Wilshere’s career has felt unfulfilled, to this point a disappointment. Partly that is down to the litany of injuries he has suffered, to the point that he only made his 100th Premier League start in November this season, eight years after making his debut.
It’s also down to confusion, indecision and a lack of clarity about what sort of midfielder he is and what his best position is. For Arsenal, he would often play in a two or three-man midfield, occasionally out wide. England briefly tried to turn him into a deep-lying playmaker, a sort of imitation Andrea Pirlo. For Bournemouth, he’s broadly been a No.10, playing ahead of two players who would do much of the grubby work and behind a centre-forward.
But in none of those positions has he been entirely convincing. This season, for example, he is yet to register a goal and has only two assists. Very basic statistics, but you might expect more from a No.10. There are some who feel the tactical/injury explanations for his absence from the team are handy excuses, after a drop-off in form.
This lack of positional clarity could be the reason Southgate has decided he can do without Wilshere, who can play in several positions, all of which England have better or more in-form options for. It’s tricky not to also draw parallels with a fellow England absentee, Theo Walcott. These are both players that are expected to realise their potential any day now, but both have been around for too long to get away with that.
When he talked about him last week, Howe praised Wilshere, but also offered this qualifier: “I still feel there is a lot more to come as he continues to get back to his very highest levels.”
It’s not a stretch to read that as a sugar-coated explanation for his place out of the first XI.
The good news is that Wilshere’s situation with injuries is improving. Howe said: “The only question [about taking Wilshere] was his ability to play consecutive games for us, and keep fit,” but this season he’s been broadly free of injury, to the point that he’s been in the squad for every league game except those against his parent club, for which he’s ineligible.
All of which might be down to how Bournemouth have carefully managed his fitness, designing a painstaking training regime with the aim of preventing stress-related injuries.
“He’s a player who is prone to break down if the load is too high,” said club doctor Craig Roberts earlier this month.
“We were very strict on what he could and couldn’t do. Jack didn’t like it, because he just wanted to get out and train and play. We’ve got to a stage now where he is doing most of the sessions but we still are managing him in terms of how much he does.”
And yet, in some ways a return to fitness might prove to be bad news too. That was regarded as the key element holding his career back, the thing that if it could be solved would ensure he realised his promise. But if he’s been fit for the best part of a season, and his form still isn’t regarded as good enough for club nor country, what then? Will Arsenal want him back? One, perhaps harsh and reductive way to put it is this: would they want any other midfielder that can’t get into the Bournemouth team?
This might be just a blip, a coincidence that both Howe and Southgate decided they could do without him at around the same time.
But then again it might not be. Wilshere’s talent is clear, but at the moment that doesn’t seem to be enough.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.