Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley and a very English problem

Joshua Faulkner wonders if footballing talent equates to excellence or mediocre versatility…

Jack Wilshere and Ross Barkley were considered two of the most prodigal talents in the country, sculpted and crafted to lead England’s assault to International acclaim. Well, that was at least the idea. Both individuals however, continue to struggle with the idea of honing and mastering a set position.

Wilshere has failed to create an identity midfield; is he a tenacious ball-winning midfielder or the more appropriately tuned English Andrea Pirlo (Jack Colback aside) that is able to tactically control the tempo of a game and spray precision passes across the field? Barkley meanwhile had claimed in the past he would be best played as a central striker, whilst his managers at both club and International level have utilized him in central midfield, the no 10. role and, on the odd occasion, out wide.

To see two tremendous talents struggle to hone a position is upsetting, while on the continent similarly talented individuals like Paul Pogba and Marco Verratti have excelled. This dilemma of never being designated a position has undoubtedly affected their progress. Understandably this has not been their only issue as injuries have proved costly for both players but the indecision and inability to allow the players to develop and evolve in one position and excel, is nonetheless, proving futile. With the exception of Raheem Sterling, England still seems to lack an orbital talent that the country has become accustomed in representing the Three Lions. Wayne Rooney, arguably the most recent of these talents, turns 30 in October and time is running out to find an heir apparent. The vacillating and failure to determine a position and role for seemingly ready talents will, if not rectified, soon prohibit the progress of the English national team.

Alternatively, the indecision and inability of coaching staff in designating a position to either player highlights their versatility and the abundance of skill and furore each can provide across the pitch. Rooney has excelled in numerous positions more so under Louis Van Gaal then ever before. He has played in central midfield, as a number 10 and as prototypical centre forward and thus the beacon holder that squanders this very article: that talent precipitates a dilemma that in turn should be interpreted as a solemn blessing that allows players to play where their club and country requires.

One of Rooney’s club compatriots however suggest this theory as such often proceeds to failure and should be reserved only for the truly exceptionally talented individuals. Phil Jones, purchased by Sir Alex Ferguson in June 2011, and tipped as one of England’s future footballing nobility, has struggled with the same dilemma of never being designated a position. In theory Jones, who is strong, vocal, good in the air and gallant, is a stereotypical centre back, a position Van Gaal has often played him. But his talent and solid foundation of footballing fundamentals have seen him play as defensive midfielder and tasked with shielding the back four. His most prolific outing was in March against Italy where his performance failed to mirror anything his talent suggests.

But what causes this problem? In most cases ‘talent’ refers to young raw players and when these players enter the first team they are considered utility players, to play simply where a team requires. An opportunity? Definitely. But equally detrimental as it embeds and normalises this dilemma that talent can be played anywhere to mediocrity rather than reserved for a specific position to excellence. This was most evident with Callum Chambers; credited by many to be an international centre back was played at right back following Matheiu Debuchly’s injury. Although he played well, he was kept for the rest of the season as defensive cover rather than being given an opportunity to perform as a centre back.

However with England’s under-21s due to play in this summers U21 European championship, Gareth Southgate, England U21 Manager, has an opportunity to mould players and craft their talents to a position for several games in succession that can hopefully be replicated by their domestic clubs. We have seen Southampton’s James Ward-Prowse prosper in his recent string of performances in the Young Lion’s midfield, whilst John Stones has made centre defence his own at Everton following his resilient and determined play at the heart of England’s defence. Perhaps this is the turning point. Where clubs, coaches and managers will see, by playing talent where talent first shines, talent will exude.


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