It’s called the "English Disease" as first the national press and then the public build someone of promise up to absurd heights, before gleefully knocking them back down to size once unrealistic expectations have not been met.
However, could Arsenal and England midfield player Jack Wilshere prove to be the exception to this norm and if so, where exactly does the 21-year-old rate among Planet Football’s most gifted young performers?
Well, if his most recent display on the international stage is anything to go by, an eye-catching man-of-the-match showing in England’s 2-1 victory over Brazil at Wembley earlier this month, right at the very top one would have to say.
Coming face to face with luminaries such as Oscar, Ramires, Lucas Moura, Paulinho, Neymar and Ronaldinho, the player making his first international start for almost two years stole the show, in the process giving rise to a barrage of post-match hyperbole from managers, fellow players and England supporters alike.
"If he can keep up that level of performance he will soon justify all the expectations and hopes because he was very, very good," said Three Lions manager Roy Hodgson of Wilshere’s near-perfect performance. (Via Sky Sports)
Meanwhile, fellow England midfield player Frank Lampard went one step further by suggesting that his compatriot has all the potential to go to become one of the world’s very best players in his position:
"I think [Wilshere is] a fantastic player, I've been saying that since he first broke through.
"His quality on the ball, his technical ability, his speed at getting away from people—I think he's going to be a massive player for England and in the world." (Via Goal.com)
High praise indeed from a player who knows a thing or two about what it takes to make it as a central midfield player at the very top level, but apart from that one-off showing in the international arena against the five-time world champions, what else has the stocky ball player done to justify all this hype?
Well, right from the very off there appeared to be something special, something different about Wilshere. Domestically, he became Arsenal’s youngest ever league debutant aged just 16 years and 329 days when he came on as a substitute at Blackburn Rovers in Sept 2008, breaking the club’s previous record held by a certain Cesc Fabregas. Two months later he joined a select band of only four other players to have appeared in the Champions League at the age of 16.
Inevitably, it was not long before Wilshere received his first international call-up, making his England debut as a substitute against Hungary in August 2010 and so becoming the 10th-youngest player to have appeared for his country in the process.
Recognition from his fellow professionals soon followed as "Jack the Lad" was voted the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) Young Player of the Year for 2010/11 on the back of what had been an outstanding season for the Gunners, including a scintillating display against soon-to-be-crowned Champions League winners Barcelona at the Emirates that made the rest of the Continent sit up and take notice of this prodigy for the very first time.
And, to emphasise just how influential Wilshere has already become to Arsenal, despite his tender years, one need only look at the immediate impact he has had on Arsene Wenger’s team since returning from 14 months out injured last October.
Almost immediately, the youngster who took the departing Robin van Persie’s No. 10 shirt this season has become the North London team’s most important, creative and valuable performer, bar none, a fact made abundantly clear by Wenger’s continued selection of Wilshere in spite of his previous protestations that he would ration his appearances after his comeback to avoid burnout and further injury problems.
Clearly no one would dispute Wilshere’s status not only as Arsenal’s best young player, but also their best player full stop on current form, but where does he stand in the world’s pecking order when it comes to other wunderkinds?
“He is already one, but he can become one of the best in the world, yes," was the recent verdict of perhaps the man best placed to make such a judgement, his club manager Wenger. (Via the Independent)
So, the best player at his club, most definitely. How about one of the best young performers for his national team then? Well, let’s leave that one up to a manager who has coached some of the most outstanding young footballers on the planet, Fabio Capello.
“He will be England captain one day. For personality and confidence on the pitch, he is the best young midfielder I have seen for his age, not only in England but Europe and the world," was the view of the then England boss back in March 2011. (Via the Daily Mail)
OK, so how does he compare to other young players in his position in the Premier League then? That can be fielded by the man many recognise as being the standout midfield player in the English top flight for the past decade, Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard.
"He can tick almost every box, and he's going to get better and better. He'll get better than he is now which is a scary thought," Gerrard said of Wilshere earlier this month.
"Jack has got a bit of everything. He can tackle, get up and down the pitch, create a goal, score a goal, he can pass.
"I think he's got the potential to become one of the best in the world,” concluded Gerrard. (Via the BBC)
So, that answers that one then, which just leaves the rest of Planet Football’s young players with which to compare him to. Technicians such as the Brazilian trio of Neymar (21), Oscar (21) and Lucas Moura (20), or Borussia Dortmund’s Germany international Mario Gotze (20) and Chelsea’s Belgium playmaker Eden Hazard, a year older at 22.
When placed alongside such a stellar cast list, Wilshere’s star is not so bright domestically or internationally. When you compare his stats with those players the Arsenal playmaker pales in comparison, having scored only five goals and made just 14 assists in his 86 appearances for the Gunners to date.
And the same could be said if one were to look at how developed the two current best players in the world were at aged 21. Cristiano Ronaldo had scored more than 50 goals for Manchester United at the same age, while inspiring his team to their first Premier League title in four years and Lionel Messi was already the best player in the world.
Perhaps the best comparison is with the player Wilshere most resembles in terms of his on-field demeanour and style, former England international Paul Gascoigne. At 21, "Gazza" was already a Newcastle United regular and like the Arsenal man had been voted the PFA Young Player of the Year, although unlike Wilshere the Geordie playmaker had not played at the highest level in Europe nor had he made his England debut.
One part of their game that Wilshere and Gascoigne do share, however, is their propensity to get injured, with the former having already missed large chunks of his fledging career with a serious ankle problem and when we do eventually sit down and make a definitive judgement on Wilshere’s time in the game, one can only hope that the phrase “injury prone” does not feature prominently in discussions and affect his obvious potential as a world-class midfield player.
So, where does Wilshere rank then among the world's best young players? Firstly, what’s not in doubt is the 21-year-old’s undoubted technique and skill, which was there in abundance for the whole world to see against the Samba Boys under the bright lights of Wembley earlier this month.
His manager at Arsenal most certainly agrees: "He has a Spanish technique certainly, yes.” In this day and age, this is a compliment of the very highest order. (Via ESPN)
However, that Brazil friendly was only one game, as was his breathtaking performance against Barca two years ago and as scientists would be quick to point out, those are very small sample sizes indeed. Certainly too small to be placing Wilshere just yet alongside current world superstars such as Neymar, Hazard or Goetze.
So let’s just hold on to our collective hats for now and simply enjoy and treasure "Jack the Lad" for what he is, an extremely talented and gifted young midfield ball player with the world at his feet and the potential to go on to even greater things, with the emphasis being placed firmly on the word “potential.”
And please let’s try not to infect him with that English Disease…
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