Arsène Wenger has acquired a reputation as a difficult man to please, but he was effusive on Wednesday night in lauding the "outstanding" contribution of Jack Wilshere to this precious victory.
Indebted to the 21 year-old for the devastating left-foot finish that provided an 86th-minute winner, the Arsenal manager could scarcely believe the speed of his midfielder’s recovery from 17 months out with an ankle injury.
“First of all, I have had no experience of a player being out for 17 months in my whole career,” Wenger said. “Honestly, I always felt that if we got Jack back on Jan 1 we would have done well. But he is ahead of what I could imagine.”
So far ahead, indeed, that he found it difficult to identify the slightest flaw in Wilshere’s armoury. “I think he is a complete midfielder,” the Frenchman argued. “He can defend and attack. He is a guy who can dribble and give a final ball. Jack has quality and enthusiasm and a love for the game. That is the most important aspect for me. He was outstanding.”
Theo Walcott, meanwhile, discovered that not even the promise of £100,000 a week could buy him a goal last night.
Wenger merely smiled enigmatically when asked if a spate of near-misses by the 23 year-old, on the cusp of signing a fresh 3½-year contract, could persuade him to invest in another striker. “Let’s first try to finish the deal with Walcott and then see what else we can do,” the Arsenal manager said.
“I hope it will be very soon. I cannot tell you much more.”
While Walcott huffed and puffed he still, rather like a wolf bounding fruitlessly through the Siberian tundra, could not blow Swansea’s defence down. First he had a shot blocked by Kyle Bartley, then he put the ball wide in a one-on-one with Michel Vorm after a wonderful diagonal ball from Abou Diaby. When another point-blank effort struck the shoulder of Danny Graham, it seemed he was fated for a night of gut-wrenching near-misses.
The goodwill towards Walcott from an otherwise dissatisfied crowd was palpable. Cries of “Theo” rose from the stands every time he hared goalwards but as so often, even when unleashed in his coveted position through the middle, he lacked the clinical finish.
The sight of a late effort rebounding off the inside of the post and into the hands of Swansea’s Dutch goalkeeper was nearly too much for him to bear. It took Wilshere’s flash of genius, driving the ball beyond the despairing Vorm in the blink of an eye, to rescue him.
The Emirates resounded at one last night to cries of “There’s only one Jackie Wilshere”, but at least Swansea manager Michael Laudrup, such a consummate exponent of the midfielder’s art at Barcelona, injected a measure of perspective. “People are too fast to use the big words,” he said of Wilshere. “Young players can always improve. He can be a very, very good player, but don’t expect him to be a superstar too soon.”
It is doubtful that Wenger would ever be so presumptuous. But the worry for restive Arsenal supporters is that their manager appears to regard the assurance of Walcott’s loyalty of some form of panacea for the team’s ills.
He assumes that the youngster will join Wilshere, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Kieran Gibbs, Aaron Ramsey and Carl Jenkinson in forming a tight-knit British corps of talent who can safeguard the club’s philosophy and embody its values. He holds fast to the logic that the faithful Walcott can buck a grim trend started by Samir Nasri and Robin van Persie, both of whom sundered their ties to Arsenal by running down their contracts.
The cold reality is nothing like so straightforward. As Wenger sits on his hands through London’s bleak midwinter, the movements of the January transfer market threaten to leave his project standing.
Just across town at Queens Park Rangers, Loic Remy is en route to Loftus Road, with long-time Wenger target Yann M’Vila rumoured to be following suit from Rennes. Where new signings are concerned, this most stubborn son of Strasbourg is still moving about as fast as an Alpine glacier.
Oliver Brown at the Emirates, Telegraph.co.uk