Saturday, October 27, 2012
Jack gives Gunners a lift
John Brewin, Emirates Stadium
After a week of turmoil, here was a good news day for Arsenal. Mikel Arteta's late bundling of the ball home after a lengthy goalmouth scramble served to lift spirits already lightened by the presence of Jack Wilshere in the starting line-up.
Fifteen long months since his body gave way on him, Arsenal's prince-in-waiting - previously a classic case of too much, too soon - was back, with QPR the opponents. That Arsene Wenger needed to play such a trump card is a reflection of a club with a fragile psychology. Defeats to Norwich and Schalke and a stormy AGM in which fans made public their fears for the club's future had this ship lurching.
There would be no easing in during a Capital One Cup tie. "The confidence of the team was a bit jaded," Wenger admitted in explaining Wilshere's selection, only announced to the 20-year-old at 10.30am on the day of the game. Too much build-up would mean too much pressure, too much time to get too keyed-up, Wenger reasoned.
By reputation, Wilshere became a better player for both club and country the longer he was not playing. Now, he was actually here, playing a game that had suddenly become crucial to his ailing club. It was an occasion he rose to, while many of his colleagues did not. They may have won the game once he had departed, but this game will be recalled for his return and not a sketchy win against a bottom-of-the-table team.
The roar that greeted his name when the team was read out signalled the Messianic quality attached to Wilshere at Arsenal. Needless to say, Andre Santos, a number behind him in the line-up, did not receive such a warm reception.
With bow-legged gait, his right leg slightly bent so that he is often leaning on the outside of his foot, which may be the source of his hopefully cured problems, Wilshere's first touch of the ball was greeted with rapture. The instant control and easy distribution were familiar, though most of the team-mates who presented his options will not have been. Santos lay to his left, and Spanish pair Santi Cazorla and Mikel Arteta were alongside him. Olivier Giroud and Lukas Podolski were ahead of him. In the time since Wilshere last played for Arsenal in a competitive fixture, the personnel of his team has changed dramatically. None of the aforementioned names were at the club when his ankle gave way to a stress fracture and his exile began.
At a tender age, Wilshere is a young man out of time. He used to have Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and Robin van Persie to look for. Of his options, only Aaron Ramsey, a player he can compare notes with on returning from serious injury, would have been familiar to him from the break-out season of 2010-11; Ramsey, ill-suited to his right flank role, looked far less adjusted than Wilshere.
Pre-injury, Wilshere was a buzzy player, all over the field, bursts of pace and high energy carrying him through games. His return showed glimpses of those qualities but an understandable lack of match fitness led to him playing as a midfield stroller, perhaps in the style of George Graham the player, to provide an example from a more glorious Arsenal past. The quality of his passing has not dimmed, with long and short passes finding their targets. When he burst through to have a shot saved by Julio Cesar, fans were happy to chant of "Super Jack".
Cazorla, the hero of the season so far, and guilty of a horrendous late miss, would be taking second billing. Wilshere grew in influence throughout the first half, and by the end of it was dictating play, playing ones and twos, surging with much greater purpose than team-mates looking rattled by recent events.
"We could see that technically he's there," Wenger said. "What's he's missing now is still the pace of the game, the rhythm of the game."
The Emirates can be quiet at the best of times, but when he who carried such hope went down clutching his ankle after a collision with Esteban Granero, it broke into stunned hush. Our hero writhed in pain but thankfully was soon up on his feet. Fear of another injury was entirely understandable from fans, player and Wenger, who admitted his own concerns, but Wilshere was soon to be found firing in a thunderous tackle on Samba Diakite. Eventually, he tired, and with 25 minutes to go, was replaced by Theo Walcott. His sprint from the field as applause rang out was still more urgent than what most of his team-mates had shown.
For now, Wilshere alone cannot cure Arsenal's ills. Mark Hughes had been watching in midweek. Having posted one of the most inept defensive performances in living memory against Schalke, Santos was being especially targeted.
But if Arsenal's confidence is low, they should spare a thought for QPR, a team that has not won all season. Hughes, despite Tony Fernandes' repeated denials that his trigger-finger is ready, was a pacing presence on the sidelines, braving the cold in tailored suit as Wenger stood in oversized Puffa jacket. Solidity was sought by Hughes and it was paying off until Stephane Mbia committed suicide when being sent off for a brainless hack at Thomas Vermaelen when a free-kick had already been awarded in Rangers' favour. That stupidity, force of numbers and the fact that the excellent Julio Cesar could not hold Arsenal at bay forever would make it nine games without a win.
A failure to beat Reading next week will make ten, and leave Rangers perilously adrift, but Hughes remained defiant in the face of speculation about his future. "No, not the way we are playing," he said when asked if he felt under pressure, a curt response that suggested deep frustration. His wrathful expression did not invite further questioning on the matter.
By contrast, relief was on the menu for Arsenal with Wilshere last to leave the pitch as he clapped all four corners of the ground to much applause in response. The wait had been too long to be worth it, but in him, Arsenal had restored hope.
Follow John Brewin on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN