This game was approaching half-time when the ball looped up invitingly from the mess of bodies in the Slovakia penalty area to the Englishman loitering on the edge of the box.
Jack Wilshere was alone and in space, his instincts surely screaming at him that his moment had come. A year ago he might have collected on his chest and spat away a volley to test Matus Kozacik, or even taken another touch to leave the defenders on their heels. This is a midfielder who knows he can conjure moments of such brilliance.
Yet, in the context of recent toils, the rather limp reverse pass he did muster, aimed vaguely at Daniel Sturridge to his side, was revealing. Tomas Hubocan anticipated the delivery, darted in and smuggled the ball away, leaving Wilshere, head briefly bowed, turning to begin the retreat back downfield. Occasions like this, when a player of such scintillating natural ability is striving for form having battled so long for fitness, can seem horribly cruel. Back when England were forging clear at the top of their qualifying group, Wilshere was one of those who set them apart. Yet this was a painful reminder that 141 minutes of club football over an entire campaign is no preparation for a major international tournament.
Retreat to mid-April and even this involvement seemed like a pipe dream. Wilshere had made his first appearance in almost nine months, for Arsenal’s under-21s against their counterparts from Newcastle, a smattering of 2,831 in the Emirates Stadium watching the hosts’ No10 stroll through his comeback from a fractured fibula alongside players such as Marcus McGuane and Jeff Reine-Adelaide, or supplying Stephy Mavididi with the occasional glimpse of goal up front. He had managed 65 unremarkable minutes, feeling his way back into the rhythm of a game, with his display, in truth, eclipsed by that of the 18-year-old Daniel Crowley. Indeed, the only real moment of note was a squabble with the visitors’ Henri Saivet before Wilshere was replaced by Josh Dasilva.
He would go on to make only one Premier League start, on the final afternoon. And yet here he was arriving at Stade Geoffroy-Guichard with England’s cuddly lion strapped to his back, the man charged with providing the national team with greater guile in possession and invention on the ball. Memories linger of that performance against Slovenia a year ago, his best at this level. That performance had set the benchmark and has played on Roy Hodgson’s mind ever since. Wilshere, when fit and able, can clearly provide the energy and drive his team require. He proved that in Ljubljana on the last occasion he completed 90 minutes. “For me it’s all about the class of the player,” said the England manager in March. “Form is transient but class is [permanent].”
The problem is the 24-year-old, at present, looks like a player still striving for zest in his game. Wilshere effectively stepped in for Wayne Rooney here, the latter having impressed in his deeper brief over the first two group games, and the Arsenal midfielder clearly accepted the responsibility which came with the role. None of the personnel in front of the English backline had more than his 33 caps, making this his opportunity to demonstrate he can lead, inspire and influence. He was forever barking instruction at those around him, pointing and directing affairs as he sought the ball from Eric Dier. His initial energy could not be questioned.
The pass he clipped over Slovakia’s backline nine minutes in for Jamie Vardy to collect was sumptuous, a reminder of his abilities. Yet those occasions on the ball were relatively rare, the trademark quick feet absent until one dart in enemy territory just before his departure. Rooney had spoken of his team-mate’s ability to “take the ball on, run at players and create chances” on the eve of the contest. In those areas his impact was blunted, his impact rather frustrated and, as the first half ebbed away, the bursts of energy which used to see him wriggle clear of markers became less frequent. Viktor Pecovsky intercepted one of Wilshere’s attempted short passes midway through the period and England suddenly found themselves backtracking desperately to repel a Slovakia counter. Wilshere looked what he is: rusty.
Given he has now played more times for England this season than Arsenal, that much was understandable. Yet England had been prepared to risk life without Rooney’s drive and 113 caps, a colossal weight of experience around which they had previously built their lineup in Group B, to offer Wilshere his chance. The captain had also set up eight chances for team-mates in those two contests, driving those around him on. Yet the more dynamic of Hodgson’s midfielders here was arguably Jordan Henderson.
The chants for Rooney which echoed round the arena as the game spluttered on must have weighed heavy on Wilshere’s shoulders up to the moment the board inevitably went up. He had expected the call and departed almost in relief. “He’s a very good footballer and will be a very important member of our troop and squad,” said Hodgson. “Sure, he didn’t set the world alight but, if we stay beyond the next round, you’ll be speaking of him in a different light because that’s the player he is.” The faith remains. The hope is Wilshere summons that quality to justify it.
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