If nothing else, the Emirates Cup, the annual local jamboree staged in its latest iteration this weekend, is a chance for Arsenal’s lesser-known lights to make a name for themselves. This year, there might even be an unlikely chance for one particular player to remake a name for himself. Jack Wilshere has returned to full-time training just in time for the two weekend fixtures, which come at a crucial juncture of his career.
Arsenal’s bespoke preseason competition is not always a reliable insight into the future of football. In 2014, Yaya Sanogo memorably brought Benfica to their knees by scoring four goals — three more than he scored in competitive games across the entirety of his four-year Arsenal career. In the case of Wilshere, though, the Emirates Cup has regularly proved illuminating, casting light on the sparkling potential and devastating fragility of a precarious talent.
It was in 2008, the summer of his thrilling emergence, when he thumped into Real Madrid’s seasoned campaigner Michel Salgado and knocked him to the floor, showcasing the spiky edge which accompanied his gilded touch on the ball. The following year, 2009, seemed to herald the arrival of a great talent as he was named man of the match twice in two days, scoring twice against Rangers and earning flattering comparisons with Wayne Rooney from Arsene Wenger. And then, in 2011, the darkness descended: an ankle injury sustained in the meaningless tournament ruling him out for well over a year. It showed this young man in all his vulnerability.
The Wilshere story is at an important point of plot development going into the weekend’s action. After missing the preseason tour to China and Australia, the midfielder was a surprise participant in full training on Wednesday, having recovered from a broken leg suffered at the end of his loan spell with Bournemouth last season.
There is no clear picture as to whether he will be used by Wenger in the matches against Benfica or Sevilla — but his absence would be instructive in itself. Wilshere is fit again. The question now is whether he has a place in Arsenal’s plans any more.
And, perhaps, if Arsenal have a place in his. If the only resource you had was his Twitter account, you would struggle to discern any link between Wilshere and Arsenal at all. The club are not mentioned in his bio, he doesn’t tweet about them at all and the only recent pictures are from his time at Bournemouth, which, if it didn’t exactly deliver a series of brilliant performances, did at least supply 27 Premier League appearances before his body failed him again. Still, it was hardly the most compelling case for Wenger to bring Wilshere back into the fold.
Resurgent at the end of last season in a new formation, there may well be a sense that Arsenal have moved on without the player who once promised to carry a whole team and generation on his slight shoulders. Aaron Ramsey and Granit Xhaka are well established in the centre of midfield, Santi Cazorla already fills the quota of repeatedly injured creative midfielders, the attack has plenty of options and the young insurgents now looking to make their mark are players like Reiss Nelson and Joe Willock, whom Arsenal fans will be hoping to see more of at the weekend following their exploits on tour.
By contrast, there is nothing new to learn about Wilshere, who is only 25 but feels much older, somehow. After a move to Bournemouth failed to relaunch his career in the manner he likely expected, transfer talk have unsurprisingly never been far away this summer. There have been rumours of a move to Sampdoria or Turkish side Antalyaspor and while he is said to favour a move within England, the thoughts of all parties concerned certainly seem to be turning to his possible exit.
It is almost as if Arsenal and Wilshere have already broken apart. Except, of course, for the fact that they haven’t. Which makes his possible appearance this weekend all the more strange. It could be the moment he restarts his Arsenal career or, more likely, his chance to say goodbye. Fitting, perhaps, for a competition which helped launch him as a player, but deeply unsatisfying for all those who invested so much hope in the potential Wilshere once showed as he skipped across the newly clipped Emirates grass in summers past.