F365 Says: Wilshere the perfect passenger for Arsenal

Matt Stead

Welcome to Arsenal: the land where, just as a 3-0 win provokes a ‘yeah, but…’, a comprehensive 4-1 victory comes with a caveat or two. The Gunners will travel to CSKA Moscow for the second leg of their Europa League quarter-final with progression almost assured, yet even Arsene Wenger will know using this performance as an example of ‘mental strength’ is a bit much.

This was a 90-minute jog with a two-minute stumble, a sublime attacking display threatened by characteristic moments of defensive madness. A well-worked move put Arsenal ahead through Aaron Ramsey in the ninth minute, yet only a fool expected the script to be so straightforward.

Five minutes later, Shkodran Mustafi’s ridiculous clearance was matched by an equally ridiculous Laurent Koscielny, paying tribute to Miley Cyrus and coming in like a wrecking ball to concede a needless free-kick on the edge of the penalty area. Arsenal’s Russian scout failed to warn them of Alexander Golovin’s set-piece prowess; the scores were level.

The subsequent flirt with collapse was as inevitable as it was infuriating. Ahmed Musa almost put CSKA ahead within a minute as the Gunners tried and failed to collect themselves. The Emirates crowd grew audibly and understandably frustrated with each pass misplaced under no pressure.

It was not until Mesut Ozil burst into the opposition area to win a penalty that Arsenal’s nerves began to settle, that the self-imposed burden was lifted from their shoulders. The German, Ramsey and Alexandre Lacazette delivered the encore as a select few others suffered a crippling bout of stagefright.

That is not to denigrate either this performance or this result. Mustafi and Koscielny were the only two players to deserve blots on their report card, with Arsenal stepping up as a team in the absence of an individual hero. They recovered as a collective, and can count themselves unlucky to only enjoy a three-goal deficit for next week’s second leg.

If this was a snapshot of Arsenal at their worst in defence, it was a showcase of Arsenal at their best in attack. Seven of the ten starting outfielders either had at least one shot or created at least one chance, and no-one will use the failure to contribute in attack as a stick with which to beat Mustafi or Koscielny. But the same cannot be said for Jack Wilshere. He was the perfect passenger: quiet, reluctant to interfere, and happy to take a backseat.

The game passed the 26-year-old by. On an evening when Arsenal looked excellent going forward, Wilshere registered the lowest passing accuracy of any starter in red and white (73.3%), and only Lacazette and Henrikh Mkhitaryan had fewer than his 36 touches. Those two had six shots between them, while the former scored twice.

The most enduring image of Wilshere’s evening was not of him scoring, creating or celebrating, but in him watching from the edge of the penalty area as Ozil, Lacazette, Nacho Monreal and Ramsey combined to score a goal of exquisite quality.

It was almost fitting that Wilshere’s immediate reaction was to look over at the assistant referee in expectation of an offside flag, before finally clapping in acknowledgement at what he had just witnessed. It was a response shared by many Arsenal fans, which is what the midfielder has been reduced to. There is precious little need to wonder what an Arsenal future without Wilshere looks like; this was a fine example.

Matt Stead