Wilshere shines as Wenger changes tack
Confined to the director's box on account of being punished for the authorities' newly-invoked stance against sarcasm, is Arsene Wenger feeling the pressure of that five-years-and-counting trophy drought? While Harry Redknapp had been the North London manager hailing the Carling Cup as a bauble to cherish in pre-match it was the Arsenal manager who chose to play an unexpectedly strong hand in this derby cup-tie. Now, four fronts of potential silverware are still open and bragging rights lie with his supporters too after a deadly surge in the first half of extra time.
Since 2005, Wenger has often been accused of not taking England's cup competitions seriously enough, by contrast to the success that the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson have enjoyed in this competition and Jose Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti have enjoyed in the FA Cup.
The League Cup in particular has been treated almost dismissively, an exercise in reserve-team football and save for a losing final in 2007, has often been a source of disappointment to fans for whom silverware of any kind is now desired.
By comparison to the callow groups of young bloods previously given their bows in this competition, this was a Gunners team possessing experience on the grander stage, with the likes of Tomas Rosicky, Samir Nasri, Emmanuel Eboue and Denilson all starting. And as against Braga last week, Jack Wilshere's presence was again vital to success and further confirmation of the growing cult of Arsenal's brightest young star.
Yet Wenger, despite this win, denied he has altered his stance on prioritising and said that an injury crisis forced his hand into fielding players he would prefer to have rested. "I maintain that the Champions League and the Championship are the big competitions that really count but I want to win every single game," he said. "We have a momentum going and it's important not to interrupt it. I have so many players with injuries but if everyone is fit we can go for every competition."
Harry Redknapp meanwhile, now knows how it feels to fight on the Champions League front, and his selection reflected a switch in priorities that does not favour a competition in which Tottenham have twice been finalists in recent years. Spurs' weekend performances after European outings have borne the signs of hangover so, with that in mind, his was the set of unfamiliar faces. Stipe Plekosa, Steven Caulker and Sandro were all given their debuts. The rangy Brazilian signed from Copa Libertadores winners Internacional was of most interest to the Spurs faithful, though this was a quiet debut as midfield supremacy was surrendered to Arsenal's midfield three. Young midfielder Jake Livermore was used too, though having been booked, he did not last past the break.
On the subject Sandro, Redknapp was effusive. "I liked him," he enthused. "He gets around the pitch and he's gonna be a good player."
The unfamiliarity of such names was not allowed to affect the contempt rival fans had saved for each other at the Lane. Whatever the competition, the chance to lord it in North London is never shirked. Both have enjoyed famous victories over each other in the various guises of this competition, with Gunners harking back to the semi-final replay of 1987 and Spurs fans able to recall a 5-1 second-leg win in the semis of just two years ago.
An early chance for the vocal away contingent to bellow their approval came when Wilshere crafted a 15th minute goal for Henri Lansbury. Wilshere had begun the move in the centre circle before linking with both Kieran Gibbs and Rosicky to hit the by-line and present Lansbury with his first goal for Arsenal, and show the kind of creative drive usually expected of the rested Cesc Fabregas and further increase steepling expectations.
Tenacious in the tackle, blessed with strength that belies what looks a fragile physique, added to his obvious technical abilities, Wilshere already looks Arsenal first-team class, with international appearances soon to be far lengthier than his recent England cameo against Bulgaria. His comfort among the current generation of stars can perhaps be reflected by the inner-arm tattoo already burnished on his person, an item de rigeur for the Premier performer. Wilshere's levels of confidence are already such that he clearly feels able to implore and cajole team-mates into the positions he feels they should be in to receive his passes. Stamina too can be added to his facets, as he retained his radar in the 104th minute to supply Andrey Arshavin's goal, Arsenal's fourth.
Wenger has a delightful play-thing he is trying not to get too excited about. After agreeing that Wilshere was fearless, he said of the 18-year-old: "I am a bit cautious. I do not want to use him too much too early though he got some stick and he can take it. He was outstanding in the first half."
Having accepted punishment for that delicate push on fourth official Martin Atkinson on Saturday, Wenger's banishment from his bench was offset by regular use of a mobile phone. Though when technology failed him, he and assistant Pat Rice resorted to communicating through the type of tic-tac sign-language once used on British racecourses. However, it would not require a semaphore expert to conceal Le Boss' displeasure when the failure of Arsenal's offside trap and yet another calamity from Lukasz Fabianski handed substitute Robbie Keane an equaliser at the start of the second half.
The introduction from the bench of big Gunners in Andrey Arshavin and Marouane Chamakh reflected Arsenal's desire to get the job done quicker than they eventually did, with Rice, in his surrogate role, hugely animated on the sidelines. His charges failed to complete the job in normal time but were clear just five minutes into the added period as Spurs legs failed them, which Redknapp put down to a massed outbreak of cramp among his untried contingent.
Steven Caulker, given the high billing of a new Rio Ferdinand by Redknapp in pre-match often looked a youth of just 18, his rawness on show at times though his potential is clear in a powerful build and a clear sense of anticipation. Sadly, he displayed shades of latterday Rio as he followed the lead of senior partner Sebastian Bassong in conceding the penalty - for a foul on Chamakh - that killed the tie. Nasri, fouled for the first, converted both.
Redknapp defended the youngster, blaming nervous tension for his later errors. Seemingly forgetting Caulker's name despite repeatedly mentioning him, he took the bright-side view by saying the evening had been "good experience for the young centre-half".
As Arsenal can vouch from recent years, young hearts can often be broken in this competition. But as Jack Wilshere showed here, growing reputations can also be highly enhanced. A vanquished Redknapp could only look in admiration. "Wilshere's a top player," he said in his usual vernacular. "A terrific footballer."
MAN OF THE MATCH: Jack Wilshere - Precocious he may be, but he is already a match-winner on this evidence. A man-child in the style of the best prodigies and perhaps the player to scratch the Fabregas itch when Barcelona eventually get their man.
TOTTENHAM VERDICT: Having escaped a poor first half to equalise at the start of the second and even go close to winning it late on through Keane, they threw it away horribly in extra-time with three pieces of poor defending. Harry Redknapp, shrinking into his chair with arms folded, was clearly incandescent with rage but would put on a brave face later.
ARSENAL VERDICT: Their passing was superior throughout and eventually proved their key weapon in pulling apart Spurs. Their first goal was the archetype of the passing moves they have long been hailed for.
WARMING THE BENCH: The press box at White Hart Lane affords a view from right behind the dug-out and it was interesting to see how many Spurs players not part of the squad chose to watch this match from close-up. Many were togged in the type of clothes worn on a night out on the town, which may well have been their eventual destination, though Peter Crouch, his wings clipped of late after certain activities and the imminence of new fatherhood, was noticeably sporting a club tracksuit.