Walking along, singing this song
Walking in a Wilshere wonderland
There’s a maxim in sports that great players make the others around them better. Like an alchemist of old, players like Michael Jordan can take lead weight like Luc Longley and Toni Kukoč and turn them into golden Champions. And while it’s easy to be accused of hyperbole after a single great performance, I still have to wonder if Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere is one of those great alchemists.
In the first half I was impressed by Arsenal’s workrate. They were first to nearly every ball and while it was a bit sloppy from an attacking point of view, the whole team kept getting “stuck in” and winning the ball back. That ethic was epitomized by Wilshere’s only foul of the game.
He had just coughed the ball up and after the Swansea tackler passed it off, Jack followed the pass and made a lunging tackle to try to win the ball back. It wasn’t a rash tackle and it wasn’t brutal, just a well timed, hard tackle, intended to stop Swansea from playing forward and give Jack a moment to look at his teammates. Referee Mark Clattenburg was forced to call the foul and Jack looked around at Diaby and Coquelin an gave them the “what’s up guys? Don’t leave me all alone in midfield or I will tackle YOU” look.
From that point on, Jack was almost never alone in midfield. When they didn’t have the ball, he and a teammate hunted in packs. When driving forward, he always had Coquelin or Cazorla near. He was ever present, always hustling to win the ball back, and almost never slowing the Arsenal attack down.
But if the first half was impressive from a hustle standpoint, the second half was so much better because Arsenal finally found another gear and started to get their attack together. Still tenacious in the midfield and defensive battles, Arsenal now were pulsing forward. Jack was in the mix for nearly everything good that Arsenal did. All simple passes, no Hollywood tricks, just take the ball, turn up field, find a teammate and get a shot. Arsenal were so direct in that second half that by the time the final whistle had gone, Arsenal tallied 25 shots, 15 on goal, 7 saved, 3 cleared off the line, and just the one goal.
This is an Arsenal side that averages 5 shots on goal per game. An Arsenal side that just a month and a half ago against the same opponents, in the same venue, lost 2-0 and only managed 10 shots. And while Stuart Robson was moaning on about how Swansea were tired because of their exhausting schedule, it was Arsenal who played on three day’s rest (to Swansea’s four) and had to play 80 minutes with just 10 men. Sorry, Stuart, Arsenal just wanted it more. Jack just wanted it more.
This is not to take anything away from his teammates. Bacary Sagna won nearly every header, Gibbs showed a strength in possession I haven’t seen from him too often, and Giroud was a beast up front, eventually getting his just deserts with the assist for Jack’s goal.
There could have been more goals from Arsenal, so many more. Giroud was a bit profligate, taking 9 shots and not getting on the scoresheet. Theo was wasteful too, at least three big chances went begging, though in his favor we have to say that Chico Flores’ push probably could have been a penalty and certainly put the Englishman off his stride.
There were also a few defensive lapses which, luckily, went unpunished. Graham made an excellent run to get behind Vermaelen and nearly opened the Swans account in the first half. And Sagna probably should have closed down on Tiendalli who had all the time in the world to orchestrate a perfect cross for Kyle Bartley’s header which fortunately crashed off the cross bar. But when you see such a tremendous performance from Arsenal all around, and an especially pulsating performance from Arsenal’s most famous academy graduate, it seems like crying over spilled milk to moan about any frailties in offense or defense.
Obviously, for Jack to be considered among the pantheon of greats like Jordan, he will have to win something. He has to will his team on to win things. Just one great performance driving his team forward and getting a win in the fifth round of the FA Cup isn’t enough to have his name etched in stone. But he’s just 21 years old, returning from a year and a half long injury nightmare, and surrounded by a team full of unfamiliar faces. I’d say in those circumstances, given the match I saw last night, it’s a good start.