Arsenal fielded their second youngest team ever and for 90 minutes they played with the freedom and openness of an exhibition match but paradoxically with the crunch and purpose of a real cup tie.
Wenger chose 16 and 17 year old Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey to partner in midfield, with Merida and Randall providing width. He then put 19 year old Carlos Vela up front with the equally precocious Jay Simpson and had a back line of Gibbs, Djourou, Song, and Hoyte the Younger. Tellingly, Lucasz Fabianski was the oldest Arsenal player on the pitch at the ripe old age of 23.
From the opening moments both teams looked a bit nervous and you could tell that Wigan wanted to put an early stamp on the game; score an early goal and brush aside these 16 and 17 year olds. That strategy looked to pay dividends as early on, the Arsenal back line did look a bit shaky, with Fabianski called in to make some important saves and racing around the box trying to make every free ball his own. It seemed as if Fabianski looked to pay back Wenger’s comments of just a few days ago that the young Pole is on the verge of a first team call up and did so by providing a foil for the style of Almunia. Whereas Almunia seems unwilling to leave the safety of his area, Fabianski blindly throws himself at nearly every ball. There were some comical moments when Fabianski would come out, flap at a ball, and scramble back to make a save but I’d much rather see a keeper try to get those balls than to sit back and hope the hapless Alex Song rose and cleared properly.
Even though the match started a bit shaky, it didn’t take long for these kids to get an opening and it came in the 12th minute when Ramsey played in Vela, who but for the long arm of Kirkland, would have had a goal. From then on, Vela and Simpson terrified the more experienced Wigan defenders. Make no mistake, Bramble, Melchiot, and Cattermole are vastly experienced defenders but instead of respecting that, it seemed that the Arsenal youngsters just played around them.
Of course the Arsenal side weren’t perfect, there were needless back heels, poor crosses, wasted attempts to switch the field, and overall some sloppiness. But they more than made up for that with crunching tackles, superb runs, determined play, and boundless energy. There was more than once that I saw the Arsenal midfield lose the ball, only to put a big tackle in and win the ball back.
After Vela won a free kick in a dangerous area and Aaron Ramsey curled a powerful blast around the wall that was parried again by a superb Kirkland I started to believe what Arsene had said about this team: that they are the Barack Obama of the EPL. That these kids have quality and quality is all that matters at Arsenal.
YES THEY CAN!
And when Wilshere played in Simpson who improbably beat Melchiot to the pass and even more improbably poked the ball under the outstrectched arms of Kirkland, the din of YES THEY CAN became a roar.
Arsenal ended the first half just up 1-0 but Wigan looked disheartened.
As the second half started, Arsenal picked up right where they left off and despite Wigan’s few chances you had the feeling that this was going to be a special night for Arsenal. The second goal was a perfectly played counter attack, when Ramsey played the ball forward for a streaking Carlos Vela who destroyed his marker, patiently waited for the defense to stretch, and cool as you like played the ball to a waiting Simpson who finished with aplomb.
4 minutes later, Vela got his just desserts when yet another beautifully played ball, this one from Djourou, came straight to the feet of Vela who brazenly took one-touch around Titus Bramble and chipped the keeper. If ever there was, that goal was the icing on the bodacious cake. You literally must see it for yourself to appreciate the quality of this young man.
But if Vela’s goal was the icing, then Fabianski’s clean sheet was the little crusty flowers and swirly piping around the edges. Again, the Arsenalist has the videos in the link above so go and see the double save that Fabianski makes at the end of the match to keep that clean sheet. It’s worthy of a few views just to watch Fabianski deflect Zaki’s shot into the under side of the crossbar, over and over.
After the match, Arsene was effusive with praise for the team
These boys, they surprise everybody because there is a mixture of character, commitment and calm as well. Under pressure they remain extremely calm and play always very good football. What they do on the pitch is not a coincidence, it is quality.
We are proud, not only because we have won, but because we have won in a convincing style with a lot of quality, energy and team spirit. With such a young team, it is fantastic to see. They love it. When you are 17 and 18 and playing in front of 60,000 people, are you inhibited or do you play better? They have chosen the second solution because they have character.
The only worry I have, is not for these kids (Wenger is going to play them through all the way to the final) but what happens next for the first team? The Press have already started the spate of stories that laud this youth team as the best ever and so what now for the Arsenal first team? What happens when the Arsenal first team plays Wigan in the Premiership in a little less than a month? Certainly Wigan is going to be looking for revenge, Lee Cattermole is not the type of player to take a beating like that lying down, so what happens now?
I think the Arsenal first team, honestly, need to step up their game a bit. They are going to have to play with some of this same verve that these youngsters are playing with right now. Because what we saw last night was Arsenal Unleashed which is exactly the type of performance I have been saying the first team need. Will Almunia step up and play unleashed? Denilson? Fabregas?
The “old heads” have Aston Villa on Saturday, I guess we’ll have to wait and see. For the time, bask in the knowledge that Arsenal clearly have the best youth program in the world and as long as that remains the future of this team and this club is very, very bright indeed.