By Jay Jaffa at the Emirates Stadium
Arsenal's season supposedly hinged on their Wednesday night FA Cup replay against Swansea, but with hindsight, we may look back in May and note that their 1-0 win defined their campaign, and it was all thanks to the man who adorned the front cover of the matchday programme – the exquisite Jack Wilshere.
The game itself had all the hallmarks of a modern Arsene Wenger catastrophe – a dominant, suffocating performance, filled with spurned chances. All that was left was the late sucker punch Swansea had dealt the Gunners in their last two meetings.
Arsenal were not quite in sync in the first half and were fortunate not to fall behind after former Gunner Kyle Bartley rattled the crossbar. But, that aside, the half was interspersed with moments of craft, often instigated by Theo Walcott and Wilshere, who was starting his ninth consecutive game for the club.
A trademark rubbery run past two Swansea defenders on the edge of the box briefly looked like it might lead to the game's opener and although it didn't, it certainly served as a warning to Chico and Bartley that Wilshere would need reigning in.
Despite a goalless opening 45, there was a feeling, certainly exuded by the 55,000 home fans, that Arsenal would steamroller Swansea given time, and, but for the heroics of Michel Vorm and some desperate away defending, that looked to be the case. Whether that over-confidence seeped into the consciousness of Wenger's players is hard to judge, but taking the erratic finishing of Walcott and Giroud into account, it is possible that they felt it was just a matter of time until they hit the back of Vorm's net.
Fittingly, then, that Wilshere would take matters into his own hands as he lashed a powerful 20 yard volley past Vorm in the 86th minute to propel Arsenal into the fourth round and avoid the exertion of extra time. Prior to that, the 21-year-old had initiated countless opportunities for his team-mates and on a couple of occasions opted to lay others in rather than shoot himself – much to the ire of the home faithful.
His slalom run and shot that forced Vorm into one of many top-class saves reminded everyone of the talent that Wenger has entrusted him with the No.10 shirt, but perhaps more importantly showed that the nimble feet and sublime balance he was initially credited with have returned to a player that spent 17 months sidelined through injury.
In those dark days, many were pulled up for 'over-the-top' praise for Wilshere. His legend was increasing merely through his absence, they said. Almost presciently Wenger said in his programme notes, "you get the feeling he is becoming stronger" and it was impossible to disagree by full-time. Even before his match-winning goal it was a joy to watch him pull the strings in midfield.
Perhaps someone should check his birth certificate, though. It is hard to believe that he is really just 21 years old. This is a player who is now regularly outshining Santi Cazorla - a top-class talent, but stuttering after impressive displays in his early games for the club. He has even taken the Spaniard's preferred No.10 role, something that Wenger said "suits him well".
The Frenchman lavished praise on his starlet calling him "the complete midfielder" who can "dribble and give a final ball". He wants him closer to the goal, nearer to the finishers in the team. On a better day Walcott would have emerged with a hat-trick and would be indebted to the spaces Wilshere created.
All of this did come with a warning, though. Speaking to reporters after the game, Swansea boss Michael Laudrup picked his words carefully as he discussed Wilshere's promise. "Sometimes people are a little too fast, too quick, with the big words," he said. "We have to let them grow. He has a lot of potential and can be a very, very good player. But don't put that pressure on him."
They were wise musings from a man who would have gone through a similar period of adulation in his younger days and knows all about competing at world-class level. Wilshere still has some way to go.
Wenger now has two problems. Firstly he must find a way to give Wilshere a breather. Prior to the contest he agreed that the Stevenage-born midfielder would need a rest, but that he doesn't feel the player is ”I "overloaded at the moment.".
After yet another sterling display, Wenger may have backed himself into a corner – Arsenal simply cannot afford to rest Wilshere – he is their most in-form and valuable player.
Secondly, and possibly Wenger's hardest job, will be tempering the praise that will come Wilshere's way. He already looks like a leader, and can defend, attack, get his knees dirty if required, and of course, is English. Players like Wilshere only come around once in a generation. We have had Paul Gascoigne, Paul Scholes and now Arsenal's pocket dynamo.
The pressure will arrive and it will affect him. After 17 months out, most were just happy to see him playing football again. Expectations are low at Arsenal at the moment and he is playing with an air of freedom not normally afforded to an Englishman at a top team.
There is no higher praise than saying the new contract Wilshere signed in December was the most important bit of business the club have concluded in their recent history. It will provide stability. But it should also serve as a reminder that he is a long-term project, and one that Wenger and Arsenal must protect.
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