Men against boys. A phrase often used to describe a particularly one-sided football match. Well that phrase can certainly be applied to last night’s game at the Emirates. Only this time when the men went up against the boys, there simply was no contest.
Wigan manager Steve Bruce conceded prior to the game that the Carling Cup represented Wigan’s only chance of silverware this season. And while he may be a bit premature in writing off the FA Cup (after all, Portsmouth, Barnsley, West Brom & Cardiff were the last four last season), you can’t help feeling that his negativity was justified.
The way in which Arsene Wenger’s young guns dismantled his as-good-as-full-strength side (probably only Emile Heskey and maybe Olivier Kapo would be expected to slot into Bruce’s first choice side) confirmed his worst fears. Wigan may have Premier League experience, but even Wenger’s youngest are capable of producing football a few levels above anything Bruce’s side can muster.
Indeed, were it not for the heroics of Chris Kirkland- impeccably timed with an England squad to be announced this weekend- it could have been a lot more than just a three goal margin. The fluidity of passing and movement displayed by the likes of Aaron Ramsey, Carlos Vela and sixteen year-old man of the match Jack Wilshere, left a Wigan side- which contained seasoned internationals in Mario Melchiot, Antonio Valencia, Wilson Palacios, Jason Koumas & Amr Zaki- chasing shadows for much of the evening.
Bruce could have reasonably expected his midfield, featuring the pace of Valencia, the strength of Palacios, and the tenacity of Lee Cattermole, to compete and maybe even boss Wenger’s duo of Ramsey & Mark Randall. And for the opening ten minutes or so, it looked that Randall in particular was struggling to find his game, with a few careless passes gifting possession to the visitors, who looked to use either Valencia or Daniel De Ridder to attack the rather exposed looking Kieran Gibbs down Arsenal’s left flank.
Gibbs was not offered the same protection from Fran Merida as Gavin Hoyte was from Wilshere on the other flank, but his powers of recovery and his willingness to join in the attacks were impressive nevertheless. Twice he brought smart saves from Kirkland after buccaneering runs onto classy passes from first Vela, and then Ramsey.
Ramsey is the Welsh Under 21 international who Wenger went to great lengths to sign this summer from Cardiff City, with Manchester United & Everton missing out in the process. On the evidence of last night, and his general performances this season, it is easy to see why. Like all great central midfield players, Ramsey is at ease with his head up, or when facing his own goal, engineering space to play the simple pass or the clever pass.
In Cesc Fabregas, he has the ideal role model for the position, and there are certainly elements of Fabregas in Ramsey’s game. His spatial awareness is already at a level way above many of his more experienced contemporaries, his passing is accurate and varied, and as he showed when drawing a fine one handed save from Kirkland with a viciously whipped 25 yard free kick, he can shoot from distance too.
Where Randall took his time to get into the game and find his rhythm, Ramsey was at ease from the first whistle. He does not fly into tackles, he does not bomb around the field at 100mph, he simply gets the ball, works a bit of space, and picks out a team-mate. Wenger gave him the number 16 shirt worn by Mathieu Flamini last season, and on this showing it won’t be long before he is taking Flamini’s place in the centre of midfield as well.
Vela is perhaps the player with the biggest reputation amongst this side, having enjoyed success in Spain with Osasuna, and last night he lived up to his hype. He had Arsenal’s first chance of the evening, his blistering pace allowing him to outstrip Emerson Boyce to reach Randall’s through ball, but Kirkland read his intentions as he attempted to round him and was able to get a hand to the ball.
But the threat was there; Vela’s touch, composure and vision was a class apart, he drew another flying save from Kirkland with a beautifully struck left foot curler from twenty five yards, and it was great to watch as he scampered onto Ramsey’s seemingly over-hit ball down the left, took advantage of hesitancy from the hapless Boyce to sprint clear, then had the presence of mind to square calmly for strike partner Jay Simpson to sidefoot home his second of the evening.
Still the best was yet to come, the Mexican matching his cheeky effort against Sheffield United with an even better chip here. It seemed Titus Bramble had Vela covered as he latched onto a slide rule pass from Johann Djourou (improving with every game at the moment), but as Bramble slid in and Kirkland cut off the angle, Vela simply dug his foot under the ball and lofted the most perfectly weighted chipped finish over the helpless keeper from just outside the box. It was phenomenal, the Emirates crowd rising as one to salute a goal from the realms of Bergkamp or Wright, rather than a 19 year-old with just ten senior appearances under his belt.
Mind you, that is a veteran in comparison with young Wilshere. The 16 year old hit the headlines pre-season with a couple of eye catching displays in the Emirates Cup, and scored his first goal for the senior side in the previous round against Sheffield United, but last night he was even better.
Playing out on the right flank, despite being predominantly left footed, it would have been easy for Wilshere to struggle to impose himself on the game, especially with a three man central midfield for Wigan crowding the centre of the pitch. But the kid showed his incredible confidence, touch and passing ability to roam all over the pitch, creating chances for team-mates and rarely losing possession.
One pass from a right wing possession allowed Simpson to swivel and strike the crossbar with a fierce effort, before Wilshere’s reverse pass from a central midfield position allowed the same player to get in between the tormented Bramble & Boyce to confidently poke first time beyond Kirkland. It was breathtaking to watch, Wilshere’s movement and intelligence dragged his supposed “marker” Figueroa all over the place, and his willingness to get back and assist the impressive Gavin Hoyte at right back meant that Koumas’ only contributions to the first half were ambitious crossfield passes to De Ridder or Valencia, who were being afforded plenty more space.
Of course it is easy to get over-excited with regards to Arsenal’s kids. The whole world and his dog seems to be raving about them this morning, and it seems like they have been since about 2003.
Obviously some will not progress to the first team, some probably won’t even make it in the top flight, but forgive me for enjoying a performance of maturity, composure, and unbelievable quality from a team whose oldest player was 23 year-old Fabianski in goal (kudos to him too for a truly unbelievable save to deny Zaki towards the end- think Jim Montgomery at Wembley in ’73).
Six English players involved as well, Fabio Capello & Stuart Pearce could do a lot worse than fill their Under 21 plans with trips to watch Arsenal reserves this season.