at the Union Buildings in Pretoria
Dublin – It is initially easy to criticise Arsenal's over-reliance on and overuse of Jack Wilshere, but rather harder when you watch him play.
Less than three months after his return from injury, Wilshere is more important to Arsenal than ever before. Despite missing 17 months of football, he is already the brains and the heart and the guts of this side, prompting comparisons with his international captain Steven Gerrard.
This has been made clear recently, as he was the stand-out player in the defeats to Bradford City and Manchester City. But it was the FA Cup win over Swansea City on Wednesday, in which he scored the brilliant late winning goal, where he announced that his return is complete.
Wilshere has started Arsenal's last nine matches. Given his old problems there are understandable hopes, even from Arsenal fans, for Arsène Wenger to give him a rest. Wilshere is only 21 with seasons of football ahead of him that should not be jeopardised.
Wenger has said he will rest Wilshere eventually. Maybe when Mikel Arteta, Abou Diaby and Tomas Rosicky are all fully fit it might be easier for him. But it is difficult for a side fighting on three fronts not to play their best player.
Arsenal have other good midfielders. Santi Cazorla is a delightful and subtle player. Mikel Arteta is a mature organiser and prompter. Abou Diaby, when fit, has a mixture of pace, strength and skill possessed by few others. Wilshere, though, is the best of the set.
“I think he is a complete midfielder,” Wenger said after Wilshere drove Arsenal into the fourth round of the FA Cup earlier this week. “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.”
Wenger had good reason to be grateful to Wilshere on Wednesday night. With three minutes left he was facing the prospect of extra-time and another evening of cup trauma. But Olivier Giroud flicked Cazorla's pass to the left, Wilshere ran onto it, waited for the second bounce and smacked it into the bottom corner of the goal. “The way he took it was fantastic,” Wenger said, “because he didn't think too much.”
It was a goal with enough power and importance to earn comparisons with two of Gerrard's most celebrated, which Wilshere, with honest confidence, embraced. “I remember him scoring a similar goal to mine in the FA Cup final against West Ham and the Champions League game against Olympiakos,” Wilshere said.
They are not quite the same in terms of style – Wilshere operates in smaller spaces – but the admiration is obvious. “He is a great player, I think I'm a bit different, his long passing is better than mine,” the 21-year-old said.
Wilshere wants to replicate that special dynamic leadership which has defined Gerrard's career to date: “He is a great role model. He has been the heartbeat of Liverpool for years. He has also been the standout performer for England as well. He is a great role model for me. If I can get anywhere near as good as him and drive the team forward like he does then I will be happy. He was someone I looked up to when I was younger. He has 100 caps for England. For any young midfielder he is someone to base your game on and try to be like him.”
This is not just to do with quality but character too. Wishere is a good leader and revels in responsibility. “I think that's part and parcel of my game,” he said. “I like to pick the ball up and run at players and drive the team on.”
That leadership has been most obvious on recent bad days. He was the best player on that dismal night in Bradford, and in the 2-0 defeat to Manchester City at the Emirates last weekend.
Wenger said that evening his players lacked confidence and authority in home games, but he cannot have been talking about Wilshere.
“I think we all need to show a bit of character,” said Wilshere. “Sunday was a tough game; it was hard. We showed a lot of character also on Sunday, we gave a lot, so we were all tired.”
But Wilshere, as usual, seemed to give more than his team-mates, as he did again on Wednesday and as he will presumably do again this Sunday at Stamford Bridge. Wilshere, like Gerrard, plays like he means it, which is more than can be said of some Arsenal players. It will not be very long, you imagine, before he is captain.
The maturity and authority of Wilshere is evident. He ascribes it to stability at home. “I've got a great family around me who keep me grounded,” he explains. “I'm not where I want to be yet. I just want to work hard and get better and better.” – The Independent