By Jack Gaughan
Two years after making his debut for Liverpool, Steven Gerrard was winning an FA Cup final and scoring in the final of the Uefa Cup. Two years after truly breaking into the Arsenal starting XI on a regular basis, Jack Wilshere has the Gunners' hopes unfairly thrust upon his shoulders.
Even with the threat of a run in the FA Cup, possible trophies do seem a distance away – Arsenal are now without silverware for eight years – and Wilshere is attempting to carve himself a career on a landscape wholly different to the one Gerrard relished as a similar talent at the turn of the century. Gerrard’s ability was harnessed by those around him. Arsene Wenger is asking his 21-year-old to bear the weight of expectation almost solely.
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Wilshere is arguably the one player to possess the same aptitude that has seen Gerrard and Chelsea’s Frank Lampard become the sensations that they are – both domestically and in Europe.
There was a reason why national newspapers followed Wilshere’s comeback from a lengthy ankle injury like a teenage cult pining after Justin Bieber up and down the country in the Under-21 league: he is the beacon that sparks English faith that ‘everything will be alright’ on the international front in the coming years.
The midfielders are highly comparable, and will come up against each other on Wednesday night in a crucial Premier League game in the race for fourth place. But that race for fourth prize, in a nutshell, is the crux of the problem facing the England national team nowadays. At least one of Liverpool and Arsenal will miss out on Champions League football next season.
The Liverpool captain at his very peak was supplementing his Premier League exploits with barnstorming performances in Europe’s elite competition. While Wilshere has not reached that level yet – largely because of injury – it remains imperative that the Gunners continue to reach that top four.
For Wilshere, he will only continue to improve at a rate of knots if they are there year-on-year, facing the best. That means the club showing intent in the transfer market as the league’s bracket beneath the Manchester heavyweights becomes ever-squeezed. Wenger has taken a step in the right direction by tying down the club's top youngsters to long-term deals, Wilshere included.
But without the Champions League, which is a distinct possibility this year, Wilshere could end up one of two things. Firstly, he may become the next in a long line of Arsenal stars thoroughly disenchanted with the way in which the club is heading and seek pastures new. You would imagine the clutches of both Manchester teams and Barcelona et al would not be too far away.
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Secondly, and more likely, Wilshere may become the Gerrard of Liverpool post-2005, and post ‘that’ second half against AC Milan.
Although contracts mean very little in today’s market, signing away the development years of his career signify that Wilshere is ready to carry a team of failures and take on the huge responsibility at the Emirates. That does open the door for years of regret for sticking around too long.
The love for the club may hinder aspirations, if the Arsenal tide does not turn.
Gerrard had his chance to leave behind the regret. He might have joined the Russian revolution at Chelsea many seasons ago, but eventually spurned Roman Abramovich’s advances.
It proved wise in the short-term, thanks to Champions League success, indicating that the thought-process behind considering the offer seemed petty in the grand scheme of things. Liverpool were apparently failing to make enough strides forward.
In hindsight, that was down to the spending power in direct competition with them and continues to be the case for frugal Arsenal to this day.
A wise decision in the short-term, but not the long-term. Gerrard has not played truly elite club football since 2009 and has failed to cement himself as the real great he deserves to be because he has been held back by a club going nowhere, bittered by shoddy ownership and bad management decisions.
It is hypothetical, but a stagnant Arsenal provides problems three, four or five years down the line for a Wilshere who ought to be nearing his pomp and consistently controlling matches, as he threatens to do so frequently. If they are to get out of this rut, it needs either Wenger or Ivan Gazidis to be given an almighty boot up the backside or for Wilshere to drive this team on almost alone.
The way they have been run since leaving Highbury, though, dictates that Wilshere will go down in the same mould as Gerrard, a wondrous midfielder trying desperately to keep the club’s head above that European line. The only difference being that this has come relatively late on for Gerrard; Wilshere might have over a decade of this pathetic charade to endure.