It felt inevitable in the end, but Arsène Wenger's announcement on Monday night that Jack Wilshere will not be fit in time to play for England at the European Championship this summer poses some fundamental questions for the new manager – whoever that might be.
Wilshere has only five England caps, but you would be forgiven for thinking it was 50, given the importance with which he had come to be regarded in the team by this time last year. Twelve months ago he had played four times for England, including his debut against Hungary in August 2010 and yet he was already considered one of the first names on the teamsheet.
Last year Wilshere started the two March internationals, the 2-0 win over Wales in Cardiff, a Euro 2012 qualifier, and the friendly against Ghana three days later at Wembley. By the time the home Euro 2012 qualifier against Switzerland came around it was the then 19-year-old who was the driving force behind England coming from two goals behind to draw 2-2, winning the penalty for the first goal.
Wilshere was, Fabio Capello hoped, the closest thing England had to one of the Spanish maestros, Xavi and Andres Iniesta. Indeed, he had been exceptional against Barcelona over the two Champions League ties in which Arsenal were eliminated last season. By last summer it was no exaggeration to say that the burden on Wayne Rooney as the team's most creative player was somewhat lifted by Wilshere's presence.
The emergence of Wilshere also coincided with Steven Gerrard's 15-month absence from international football and Capello recalibrated the team accordingly. Against Switzerland, Capello played Wilshere on the left of a midfield three with Scott Parker and Frank Lampard. It was roughly the same position he had played against Wales and Ghana.
Even then you could envisage an England team under Capello with a fit Wilshere in the team playing 4-2-3-1, with Wilshere partnering Parker as one of the two in front of the defence. It was an attractive prospect and promised something new for England. With Wilshere out of the tournament in Poland and Ukraine, what now?
In the three games subsequent to the Switzerland match, while Wilshere has been recovering from the stress fracture to his ankle and then the Achilles injury, Capello paired Parker and Gareth Barry in a 4-2-3-1 system (Bulgaria and Montenegro away) and Lampard and Barry against Wales at home.
In the November win over Spain at Wembley, Capello played a five-man midfield – probably a one-off unless England meet the defending champions at Euro 2012. In the win over Sweden he picked a three of Phil Jones, Jack Rodwell and Barry. Stuart Pearce selected Gerrard, Parker and Barry in midfield for the friendly against the Netherlands in February.
There is no replacement for Wilshere. There is the old guard of Gerrard, Lampard, Barry and Michael Carrick. There is the old, new guard (Parker) and the young old guard (James Milner, who is preferred in a wider position). Rodwell and Tom Huddlestone are both injured. Jordan Henderson does not look ready yet. Phil Jones has played predominantly in defence for Manchester United, although many wise heads see him eventually as a midfielder.
The new England manager may wish to take a risk and opt for Leon Britton, the 29-year-old Londoner who has never been capped by the England Under-21s but, according to the statistics, completes more passes for Swansea than Xavi does for Barcelona. Unfortunately, that is balanced out by the stat that he's yet to score in the league this season. It would be a bold move at this late stage of the game.
Wilshere is young and he will have many more tournaments for England. In all likelihood he may even be captain one day. Only just 20, he's not yet irreplaceable. Having said that, there are hardly alternatives in abundance.