Upon boarding his flight to Ljubljana on Saturday afternoon, Jack Wilshere double-checked his belongings for one particularly important item. A copy of the newly released documentary Gascoigne.
ilshere was engrossed for the next 90 minutes and it could be no coincidence that, 24 hours later, he should deliver the sort of complete central midfield performance that contained so many similarities with Paul Gascoigne in his absolute prime. Not only did Wilshere score twice but his all-round influence, especially the way he rode challenges to burst forward from midfield, was reminiscent in style to Gascoigne.
“It did inspire me,” said Wilshere, who was most struck in watching the film by the almost carefree adventure with which Gascoigne approached football. “You could tell by the way he was going out and playing for England, he didn’t feel any fear. He was over that.
“Sometimes when they play for their country I think players feel a little bit of fear and a bit of pressure. He just wanted to go out there. He said he felt at his best when he was playing, with the ball at his feet. You do sometimes feel like that. He did it and he was England’s best player so it’s worth a try.”
Seeing and doing are clearly two very different challenges but for Wilshere to then score his first two international goals – with two brilliant left-footed strikes from distance – really did suggest he had absorbed something special from the film. It was certainly interesting to hear Wilshere admit immediately after the game he might not have had the confidence to attempt his spectacular second in different circumstances. It also reawakened the debate about how Wilshere is employed. Roy Hodgson and Arsène Wenger clearly disagree about his best position but the bottom line this past season is that Wilshere’s best performances have generally been in an England shirt.
For Hodgson, a holding role has been identified that requires Wilshere to remain the deepest lying midfielder and shield the defence while using his vision and quality on the ball to start England’s attack. It also often leaves him lingering on the edge of an opponent’s penalty area for the sort of strikes he delivered on Sunday.
Wenger believes Wilshere’s greatest strength is his creativity in the final third and has suggested he is better behind a striker in the position occupied at Arsenal by Mesut Özil. Wilshere has also played as the more attacking of two central midfielders for Arsenal but, at present, that ‘No 8’ role of a Gascoigne or Cesc Fabregas is being taken by either Santi Cazorla or Aaron Ramsey. It has all meant Wilshere sometimes being shunted out wide.
Wilshere did speak to Wenger about playing in the holding position when Mikel Arteta was injured early in November but he instead tended to turn to Mathieu Flamini. Wilshere himself then got injured and Francis Coquelin emerged, meaning he ended the season playing largely as a substitute. In subsequent interviews, Wilshere has hinted at an uncertainty about how wanted he now is at Arsenal.
Wenger had certainly been planning to buy another holding midfielder this summer – and contact was made with Southampton in January over Morgan Schneiderlin – but Coquelin’s form and Wilshere’s England performances must be making him question whether he still needs to strengthen this area of his team.
He does already have the options of Coquelin, Ramsey, Wilshere, Cazorla, Arteta, Flamini and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
One caveat is that Wilshere is still unproven against higher quality opposition in that deeper-lying role.
“It’s strange,” Wilshere said. “A big part of that role is that when we’re attacking, you’re not defending, you’re backing up play, but you’re trying to stop the counter-attack. You’re trying to read the position the ball will drop out in.
“You’re always on the edge of the box and if it drops out like that you do have a chance to hit it. Thankfully I hit those two sweetly. You work for these kind of moments. When you’re younger, you dream of playing for England. It wasn’t preying on my mind. The only reason I was bothered was because you look at your stats and it says 28 games and no goals. I’ve been open about it and saying for club and country I know I haven’t scored enough.”
Wilshere also believes that the team have far more to prove even after now going a year unbeaten. “We’re beating teams that we should beat but we’re playing well. We don’t feel we’re the finished article yet.”