It was yet another night of Carling Cup entertainment to look upon with disturbingly avuncular affection. Following the defeat of Manchester United on Saturday, there was a feel good factor floating around the stadium, which the manager spoke of maintaining. Wenger stuck to his word and made 11 changes from Saturday`s side, even going so far as to preserve the fitness of utility striker Nicklas Bendtner for the visit of Aston Villa on Saturday, so Jay Simpson stepped into the breach. It was slightly surreal for me to see Jay`s muscular frame plugging away upfront in an Arsenal shirt having watched him five or six times at the Den last season. (I even saw him sent off for celebrating a goal against Oldham).
As ever in Carling Cup games, the kids took a little while to make an impression on the game. It is usually the case that they require a catalyst to imbue them with confidence, particularly when the opposing side tries to make a physical impression in the early stages. So it proved in the opening exchanges, the Latics revealed their hand very early, looking to target Kieran Gibbs at left back by getting the ball to Daniel de Ridder at the earliest available opportunity. A mixture of Gibbs` natural attacking instincts and Merida`s lack of awareness tracking back would probably have informed this. In these opening stages, the calmness and authority of Djourou and Song was worth its weight in gold. After 13 minutes, the catalyst arrived. Aaron Ramsey, who showed an insatiable desire for the ball all night, proving to be the pivot of the team, sent a defence splitting through ball to Carlos the motorbike, Vela jinked through on Kirkland and tried to round the grounded keeper, but Kirkland thrust out a palm to beat the ball away from Vela`s ravenous stride. The crowd was newly buoyed with enthusiasm and when Wilshere played the ball into Jay Simpson, the young hulk swiftly turned Boyce before crashing an early shot against the top of the crossbar. The young Gunners baby steps were turning into giant strides as the nimble Vela was bought down on the edge of the box. Ramsey sent the free kick carrier pigeon like towards the top corner, only for Kirkland to beat it out.
But Wigan were looking to use their wingers on the counter, de Ridder again teasing Gibbs before sending a ball to Koumas at the back post, but the Welshman blasted his shot over. The first goal was always going to be the crucial one. de Ridder forced a fine save from Fabianski, who looks an incredible prospect. But the goal came just before the break. 16 year old Jack Wilshere breezed in field from the right, collected the ball under pressure from Palacios and Cattermole, before clipping a delightful low through ball, perfectly weighted into the area for the marauding Jay Simpson who toe poked past the onrushing Chris Kirkland. Wilshere`s part in the goal succinctly sums up the sense of excitement that surrounds this player. Hype is not something I particularly care for but I cannot help but feel that only attitude or serious injury can prevent Wilshere from achieving greatness. He is so easy and fluid on the ball, the deceptive way he changes direction puts one in mind of an on form Alex Hleb, whilst his strength and vision belie his tiny frame and slender years. Everything looks so easy to him; he`s just a natural born footballer. The fact that he drifted infield so intuitively and delivered the pass under pressure so adroitly beggars belief for a boy (and it`s not incorrect to label him as such) of his age.
Wigan had to come out and attack in the second half, and they did for the first ten minutes or so. Arsenal`s youngsters were demonstrating such composure on the ball, from back to front, showing grace under fire, but Wigan were determined to press high up the pitch in the second half and were forcing errors. Ramsey in particular overplayed at times. But Ramsey was also at the heartbeat of our attacking play, a gorgeous defence splitting pass to Kieran Gibbs saw the young left back force a good save from Kirkland, who was on his mettle in spite of a back injury. However, the Gunners waited their moment and Ramsey demonstrated his keen eye once again. With the Latics pushed high up the pitch, Fabianski`s punch found Ramsey, who sent a low pass down the left flank and with Vela trailing his marker by some three yards, but the Mexican revved up the engine and motored past Boyce and into the area, he had the wherewithal to look up and spot Jay Simpson, leaving the Islington youngster to tap home into an empty net. Wigan more or less gave up the ghost at that point and Vela`s altruism was rewarded with a quite stunning goal from the young Latin striker. Djourou bought the ball out of defence with consummate authority, he played the ball in to Vela with his back to goal, a beautiful spin took his round the lumbering centre half before a gorgeous clip sailed over Kirkland`s head and nestled snugly in the onion bag. Even after several replays I was convinced the ball had ricocheted in off of Bramble, it soon became apparent that the spin on the ball was applied entirely by Vela. It was a goal to saviour.
With the attacking flair showed throughout the game, it was time for the rearguard to receive some well earned plaudits. de Ridder wriggled in and out and past Hoyte and Djourou before sending his shot goalwards. Fabianski palmed it away, only for Zaki to be on hand to convert the rebound. Or so we thought, Fabianski clambered to his feet and with the ball behind him, he elastically turned the flat of his hand towards the ball and turned it onto the underside of the bar. The save was part Jim Montgomery in the 1973 Cup Final, part Jens Lehmann against Real Madrid. High praise indeed and Fabianski clearly enjoyed it, pumping his fists after the ball was cleared with the kind of youthful exuberance unbecoming of the team`s senior figure! Stiff upper lip young man. 15 seconds or so later, a back pass arrived at his feet and he was given a standing ovation, well deserved too. A few minutes later and it was the whole team`s turn to receive the accolades, convincingly beating an established and physical Premiership side is no mean feat for a team of teenagers. The PA recognised the significance too, playing the Undertones` 'Teenage Kicks` as the players left the pitch. Half of the current top flight was fallen victim to Arsene`s team of young protégés over the last four years and the fact that they continue to produce performances such as this is really quite astonishing. I am not sure there is another team/ manager in the world who could regularly field sides of this infancy with such results. There were a number of performances to be inspired by, Fabianski looks a calm and assured pair of hands, Djourou and Song relished their roles of elder statesmen in the team and helped us ride out Wigan`s pressure. Ramsey was the pivot, wanting the ball at every available opportunity, Randall did the laundry behind him quietly and effectively. Gibbs and Hoyte looked sturdy, while Merida showed many nice touches. Vela and Simpson were, believe it or not, quiet for large spells of the game, but one look at the score sheet and accompanying assists card will tell the story of their contribution. But the star of the night had to be Wilshere who is eerily composed and natural with a football, like he came out of the womb with a size five football at his feet. His strength and vision also show great promise because you cannot artificially instil that in players as ridiculously young as he. At the beginning of the night, Lord Lowe received a text from a Chelsea fan saying our insistence on playing youngsters was "an embarrassment to the sponsors." I quipped that given the fact that most of our team are too young to purchase said sponsor`s product, he may have a point. On my way home I received a text to say that Wilshere had won man of the match but was too young to accept the magnum of champagne. You couldn`t make it up.LD.