Despite Sunderland’s sometimes precarious placing in the Premier League table, a trip to the Stadium of Light is often approached apprehensively by Arsenal fans. They’ve struggled there recently: after a late 2-1 win in the league last season, courtesy of Thierry Henry, they crashed out of the FA Cup there a week later. Before that their results read 1-1, 0-1 and 1-1 again.
In the latter match, it was another late goal that rescued Arsenal. Cesc Fàbregas arrived to head home Robin van Persie’s corner – and it said it all that the midfielder could come up with such an atypical goal at such an important time for the Gunners.
Now Arsenal’s midfield talisman is Jack Wilshere. Fàbregas’ countryman Santi Cazorla had a great start to the season and is still putting in good performances, but in terms of influence Wilshere seems to have taken up the mantle of key man. Indeed, when Fàbregas departed, he said on Twitter that he didn’t understand fans telling him they needed a replacement because “[Arsenal have] one of the best 3 young players in the world [in] @JackWilshere”.
They may have slightly different styles, but both have broken through at Arsenal looking like being complete midfielders in the future. Now Wilshere, like Fàbregas did, will have to start adding goals to his game.
In 85 games for the Gunners, Wilshere has 5 goals. Fàbregas went through the same original period, getting 3 goals in his first full season, before maturing into a goal-scoring midfielder, hitting the net 19 times in 36 games in his penultimate season.
The change will come for Wilshere, particularly as he moves closer towards the goal – it can’t be long before he’s the first-choice main playmaker, with his influence growing by the game. His man-of-the-match performance against Brazil showed that increasing authority, with the young star being the go-to player for England at many points. His fine pass to Theo Walcott to create the first goal only demonstrated further his quality.
It’s also important that Wilshere has a player to learn from, and there could be few better in terms of scoring goals from midfield than Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, two players who the 21 year old played alongside on Wednesday night. Indeed, both have recently demonstrated their ability to score from range: Lampard at Wembley the same night, and Gerrard against Manchester City last weekend.
Against Swansea in the FA Cup recently, Wilshere confirmed his ability to be a match-winner when his club need him. There were also promising signs when he seized responsibility and drove the side forward at Bradford in the Capital One Cup – and he’ll be hoping to put in a similar performance against Sunderland.
One of the great things about Wilshere is his hunger. He’s always asking for the ball and often goes on mazy runs when a pass isn’t immediately on. More and more he’s the fulcrum of attacks – the challenge now is to be on the end of them more frequently.
A key could be his connection with Olivier Giroud. A couple of seasons ago Wilshere excelled when he linked up with Marouane Chamakh, with the Moroccan assisting one of the English youngster’s only goals for Arsenal so far against Aston Villa. Giroud has been the foil for both of Wilshere’s goals this season, and as he moves further forward, Arsenal’s number 10 should start taking advantage of the striker’s knock-downs more often.
There’d be no better time to start than at the Stadium of Light. Arsenal’s passing game has often struggled there, with the pitch regularly suspect. Many times they’ve lacked a more direct option, and in that sense Giroud will be important. Equally so will be somebody getting on the end of his flick-ons and winning the second ball. On the evidence of his energetic performance against Brazil, Arsenal have nobody better for that than Wilshere.