Through the weeks of rehabilitation that turned into months last season, and the long lonely hours in the gym, Jack Wilshere will have clung to the hope that he would again experience nights like this one.
The kind of night when the 21-year-old lead this new Arsenal team – often embattled, frequently fragile of confidence and occasionally prone to embarrassing defeats – to a victory that they badly needed. Wilshere did not just score the winning goal; he demonstrated the kind of drive and determination to change a cup tie that has been conspicuously absent at times this season.
Freezing cold, four minutes left and an FA Cup third round replay that Arsenal had dominated after the break was heading towards extra-time and possibly penalties. They had tried just about everything to beat the inspired Michel Vorm before they finally did so when Wilshere struck a crisp volley past the Swansea City goalkeeper to secure a fourth round away tie against Brighton.
After 17 months out the game before his return in October, this was Wilshere back to his best and playing in a more advanced No 10 role, behind the striker Olivier Giroud, rather than as one of two defensive midfielders. Having lost to Manchester City at the Emirates on Sunday, this was a tie Arsenal had to win before their trip to Stamford Bridge in three days’ time.
To give Arsenal their due, they raised their game in the second half, and, goodness knows, they needed to. It has been seven seasons and counting since they last paraded a trophy at this club – as if anyone needs reminding – and, although they have made it to the Champions League knockout rounds, the FA Cup represents their best opportunity this season.
After the defeat to City, Wenger bemoaned his side’s failure to impose their “personality” on the game. Before half-time, in an Emirates stadium around 8,000 short of capacity, you would be hard-pushed to identify that personality. But when they came out for the second half, inspired by Wilshere, Arsenal took this tie by the throat and thoroughly deserved to win.
Michael Laudrup, the Swansea manager, conceded that his team had been second-best after the break. Once again he started with top scorer Michu on the bench although the Spanish striker, who scored in the first tie, came on in the second half. Swansea lacked the will to win the game. With Stoke City at home on Saturday in the league and then the big Capital One Cup semi-final second leg against Chelsea on Wednesday, they could be forgiven.
By contrast, this was a tie that Arsenal could not afford to lose. Yet in the first half, Swansea did go the closest in the first half when Kyle Bartley, an Arsenal academy boy, hit the bar with a header from Wayne Routledge’s cross from the left.
It was a grim trudge to half-time with Arsenal once again tumbling into the slough of mediocrity that has marked some of their performances this season. Their best chance fell to Thomas Vermaelen in injury-time at the end of first half. Chico Flores’ clearing header cannoned off Per Mertesacker and fell to the Arsenal captain whose shot was saved by Vorm.
The side that Wenger had picked was close to his strongest available team with Abou Diaby and Francis Coquelin as his two holding midfielders, a selection that he said gave his side a better defensive platform. They came out for the second half a much more aggressive, assertive side.
With Wilshere running the game it was, for much of the second half, just a case of Swansea hanging on against waves of attacks. Diaby’s fine ball though to Theo Walcott on 49 minutes allowed the winger to sprint ahead of Chico Flores who pushed his opponent. Walcott kept his feet rather than go to ground and clipped a shot just wide of the post.
Santi Cazorla hit a shot of power that just went over Vorm’s bar and Giroud glanced another header wide. Vorm saved from Wilshere on 63 minutes when the midfielder neatly sidestepped Bartley in the box and shot from close range. In the aftermath, Walcott’s shot was cleared off the line by Danny Graham’s shoulder.
From the next corner, Leon Britton cleared another header from Giroud off the line. A ball down the left channel from Wilshere again found Walcott who struck the ball wide. Vorm saved again from Wilshere. This was an Arsenal team at last playing like their season depended, to a large degree, on this cup tie. In the meantime, Michu came on for Swansea.
With just nine minutes left, Bacary Sagna crossed from the right and Walcott, unmarked, failed to get a contact on the ball. It struck Vorm’s far post and bounced back into the goalkeeper’s hands. He made another fine save from Walcott on 84 minutes. Shortly afterwards, left-back Dwight Tendialli twice cleared off the line.
Then came Wilshere’s winner, teed up by Giroud who had been found by Cazorla. It was no less than Arsenal deserved, and it fell to the best player on the pitch.
Man of the match Wilshere.
Match rating 7/10.
Referee M Clattenburg (Co Durham).
Revised fourth round draw
Friday 25 January Millwall v Aston Villa
Saturday 26 January Stoke v Manchester City; Bolton v Everton; Brighton v Arsenal; Derby v Blackburn; Huddersfield v Leicester; Hull v Barnsley; Macclesfield v Wigan; Middlesbrough v Aldershot; Norwich v Luton; QPR v Milton Keynes; Reading v Sheffield United; Manchester United v Fulham.
Sunday 27 January Brentford v Chelsea; Leeds United v Tottenham; Oldham v Liverpool.