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Jan 16, 2013

Wilshere can rewrite Arsenal's season

Having changed the script Jack Wilshere may well have also changed the direction and dynamics of Arsenal's season.

Football, after all, is a game often governed by narratives - most of all in mythologised competitions like the FA Cup.

And, for the vast majority of this third-round replay, it seemed we were going to have one of the same old stories: Arsenal dominating, passing, persevering but ultimately not doing enough. Another sorry tale. Another dispiriting elimination. That seemed like it was especially going to be the case after Danny Graham somehow kept out a Theo Walcott effort on the line.

Indeed, when Michu came on in the final stretch after so many missed opportunities from Arsenal - and, even more relevantly, so many goals the Spaniard has scored against them himself recently - there seemed a certain inevitability to it all.

Instead, like many players of that elite level, Wilshere forced his will on the game and, on the night at least, made sure of his own destiny. By doing so, and driving the ball past the almost impeccable Michel Vorm, he also ensured a different narrative dominated the night.

It wasn't about the FA Cup and arguably not even about Arsenal. It was about the true return, and rise, of a truly talented young player. This was a compellingly complete performance from Wilshere that combined elements of Roy Keane and Steven Gerrard.

Of course, as Michael Laudrup sensibly pointed out afterwards, Wilshere is nowhere near the levels of such players yet. Forty to fifty games is not enough to "become a world-class player", the Swansea boss said afterwards. In saying that, it is still no exaggeration to say Wilshere drove the tempo of the game from one end and decided it at the other.

"I think he is the complete midfielder," Arsene Wenger said afterwards. "He can defend and attack." Most importantly, the Arsenal manager stated that the midfielder was finally back to his best after so long out.

Perhaps the more interesting aspect of this display in the long run, though, is that a Wilshere in that kind of form also makes Arsenal look so much more complete too. Playing in what many perceive to be his best role, at number 10, it was almost as if he pinned the rest of the team together.

In truth, Abou Diaby and Kieran Gibbs deserve almost as much praise. The former gave Wilshere the platform and the latter threatened Swansea from all manner of angles with his runs.

The second half was by far the team's best performance of the season so far, even above the 6-1 win over a limp Southampton and the 1-1 at Manchester City. Although the late goal of course changes the 'narrative' - that word again - there was little Arsenal were doing wrong before it, beyond Walcott's series of missed chances. They were completely commanding the game, as well as drawing the kind of performance out of Vorm that has made him one of the best goalkeepers in the division. All of Thomas Vermaelen, Olivier Giroud, Santi Cazorla and Wilshere himself went close.

Laudrup conceded that he could have no complaints because Arsenal had been so dominant, and that he was merely happy to be competitive in the game for so long.

"We had better team balance tonight," Wenger said. "We created chance after chance, even in the first half. It was unbelievable we couldn't score... that was the only negative of the night."

In a manner that Arsenal don't always manage, though, they finished the game with the ultimate positive: a late winner.

The potential effects of that should not be underestimated. One of the justified criticisms of Wenger's side over the last few seasons has been that, unlike their old rivals Manchester United, they never truly convince they are capable of such moments when most required in these situations. They only ever suggest, infer - but rarely make the necessary statement.

In that, this does have the potential to alter the dynamic of their season in the manner of the victory over Tottenham last season. It has happened before.

And, at the least, it will prevent any depressingly early lines about this already being nine years without a trophy. They still have the hope of winning the FA Cup in 2013. They still have momentum and a reason to fight beyond the trudge of the Champions League chase and a hugely difficult tie against Bayern Munich.

Wenger, naturally, recognised the importance of this game went well beyond this old competition.

"For us, there was more at stake than the FA Cup. It was important to win a game straight away after Sunday [and the 2-0 defeat to Manchester City]."

Although it took a while and involved an awful lot of anxiety, tension and excitement, Arsenal - and Wilshere - spectacularly did that.

The narrative of their season has not quite been set yet. And Wilshere might well write a few different endings.

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