He needed that. And quite a finish,too. In the new order of things at Arsenal, in the epoch of Mesut Özil, Jack Wilshere has struggled to be, well, to be Jack Wilshere. Yes he has had fitness issues, an ankle stubbornly slow to heal, but more than that, he has found his place at the heart of the machine no longer guaranteed.
Wilshere was identified as the talent around which Arsene Wenger’s last great push at the Emirates might be built, an academy graduate stepped in the club DNA, and lavishly equipped to deliver the pass and move aesthetic that has come to define the club. Then three things happened. Mathieu Flamini returned, Özil arrived and Aaron Ramsey was reacquainted with the kid who arrived from Cardiff.
All of this combined to force Wilshere into the margins of Wenger’s thinking, starting games from the bench or when selected, shunted into unfamiliar wide positions and leaving the action early.
He began tonight pegged to the right but within 30 seconds he had bowled right back into the fray and the hearts and minds of the Arsenal faithful with a goal of exquisite vision and execution. And when things were getting sticky midway through the second half, it was Wilshere who settled matters with a more prosaic, though no less meaningful, effort.
The focus of this Marseille shadow outfit was clearly elsewhere. Nevertheless, that did not make Wilshere’s insane early chip any easier to execute or the space easier to make in order to create the opportunity. That was pure instinct.
It can’t have been easy watching Ramsey bust the net with unprecedented frequency in the charge to the top of the Premier League or Özil bewitch in an area of the pitch he used to call his own. Wilshere never moaned, he said all the right things, believing that his hour, or minute as it turned out, would come.
He showed in the second half at Old Trafford how influential he can be with a performance as substitute that changed the whole dynamic of the match. Timid and colourless in the first half, Arsenal were a different proposition in the second courtesy of the 10,000 volts Wilshere sent coursing through the team. It was not enough to save the day but it reminded Wenger of his value. In contrast, Özil rarely escaped the margins.
Tonight, Wilshere did not wait to be asked. It is remarkable to think he is still only 21. Despite missing 14 months through injury he retains an unhealthy attachment to the crunching challenge. You would hope that Wenger might coach this out of him over time. He is at his best in the final third with his foot on the ball not going through it.
Arsenal should have been two up after eight minutes when Wilshere escaped down the right a second time to send a slide rule pass for Ramsey to convert. Uncharacteristically, he failed from six yards. That is almost cause for a public inquiry on current form. The reclamation of Ramsey is arguably one of Wenger’s finest triumphs as Arsenal manager.
Ramsey was Wenger’s great project when he stole him from the expectant embrace of Manchester United. Never a bad day when you slip one past Fergie, but serious injury not only stalled progress, it set Ramsey back. Like a kid who loses an entire academic year, Ramsey was forced to start his degree all over again with a younger age group, only this time with baggage. The slow return of bio-mechanical function was not matched by progress in the mental space. The instinctive responses that led him automatically into the right field positions was lost.
All is well now, of course. Mental and physical horsepower is harnessed to fearsome effect, making Ramsey one of the most potent weapons in the Premier League. A year ago, last night’s miss in this house might have carried more significance. Not any more. Ramsey has earned the right to an off-night in this campaign.
The coupling of Ramsey with Flamini in the middle of the park has transformed Arsenal’s passing template, adding a purposeful core around which a new cutting edge has developed. The addition of Özil has not hurt in this regard, aiding the emergence of Olivier Giroud as an orthodox centre forward with a serious goal threat, though this wasn’t quite his night either.
It didn’t matter. This was Wilshere’s match, his best of the season by a street. With 15 minutes remaining he made way for Theo Walcott. There was no head down exit this time, no introspection as he took his place on the bench. The crowd roared their appreciation. Wenger applauded him of the pitch. Their favourite was back.