The Arsenal verdict: Jack Wilshere has set the tone for recovery
Midfielder has led the way and off the pitch after a difficult week at the Emirates
Santi Cazorla may have gone home with the match ball, Theo Walcott may have finally proved he can play up front, but there was one man who helped drag Arsenal back from the brink over the past week, and it was neither of them.
It wasn’t Arsene Wenger either, despite the Frenchman remaining admirably calm as the storms that followed his side’s Capital One Cup exit at Bradford rocked the Arsenal boat seemingly to the point of capsizing.
Even in that defeat, however, one player shone brightly in the gloom. Jack Wilshere is gradually returning to his best and there cannot be a more welcome sight for Arsenal fans.
Not just on the pitch, either. The timing of Wilshere’s rallying call over the weekend was the perfect shot in the arm for supporters, team-mates, and his beleaguered manager alike.
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His 18 months on the sidelines seems to have given Wilshere both perspective and purpose, and despite not turning 21 until next month he comes across as a more mature player than the impetuous teenager who burst onto the scene in the autumn of 2010.
Wilshere cut straight to the point. He said there was no hiding from the defeat at Bradford, but there was also no question Wenger was still the right man for the job. He said he would be signing his own new five-year deal in the next couple of weeks, and said other players should want to stay because Arsenal are building something special.
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His message to contract rebel Theo Walcott was clear: go if you want to, but there is an exciting future here, with or without you.
Given the week the Gunners had endured, the timing and tone of his interview on Sunday was perfect. But he made it clear that delivering on the pitch was also the bottom line, and that was something the team managed on Monday night at Reading.
Wenger concurred: “You can only give one answer – on the pitch. The target was to win and we won in a convincing way,” said the Gunners boss. “We played and didn’t bother about the rest. We focused on the quality of our game and played.”
Had it been one of his toughest weeks at the club? Wenger almost laughed that suggestion off. He has seen an awful lot in more than 16 years in charge, and the Frenchman’s skin has become almost imperviously thick.
“In any bad thing, there is always a good thing,” he said. “I don’t complain because, in our job, you need to be mentally strong and therefore it’s always a test when you’re in a position like we were in.
“We were of course not happy with what happened, and very disillusioned. There’s only one answer to give – to play well [in the next game.”
Arsenal certainly did play well at Reading. They began with pace and purpose, could have led after two minutes, were in front after 14 and out of sight by half-time.
The decision to play Walcott up front was vindicated, while the performances of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Lukas Podolski on the flanks suggested they had been given a reminder of what is expected from the wide players.
But it was the central trio who shone brightest. Cazorla’s goals all oozed class, Wilshere was combative, fearless and led the side forward, while Mikel Arteta attempted to keep things calm in front of the defence.
After Cazorla’s hat-trick goal had made it 4-0 on the hour mark, however, a few of the demons returned. That arrogance in possession, that trait of thinking the game was all over. The 4-4 draws with Newcastle and Spurs are not that long ago that they have been forgotten, certainly not by fans.
“We were under a lot of tension before the game. We thought subconsciously it was done at 4-0 and at 4-2, I saw your headlines coming,” joked Wenger. It was a night when he could afford to smile.
However, he will know that defeating the Premier League’s bottom side is hardly a corner turned, and a more genuine test will arrive at Wigan on Saturday.
“Our run in the Premier League is not as bad recently because we had beaten Tottenham, we had gone to Villa and Everton, two difficult places to go,” said Wenger.
“After that, we had one bad game, against Swansea. Then we beat West Brom, came here and won. We’ve only lost one of the last six games. The run in the last six games in the Premier League is not fantastic, but not disastrous either.”
That neatly sums up the season so far, despite the low of Bradford. Arsenal are two points behind third-placed Chelsea, and in the hat for the last 16 draw of the Champions League. Not fantastic, but not a disaster either.