Before he scored, Jack Wilshere was already the man of the match. Once he did, it was clear how much more he has become.
Arsenal labored to a 1-0 home win over Swansea City on Wednesday night in a third-round FA Cup replay at the Emirates Stadium, and Wilshere scored the decisive goal four tense minutes from time. In victory, the Gunners demonstrated two fundamental points of their nature—one about the present and one about the wonderboy and his future.
On both, the facts were clear for all to see.
First, there was the problem at hand. Victory aside, Arsenal obviously need a striker in the transfer market this month—preferably one that can finish.
Twenty-six shots flew from Arsenal boots and 16 found the target. Most of the latter came in a breathtaking second-half assault, but for 86 minutes, the Gunners fired blanks.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, there's real reason for optimism. His name is Jack Wilshere.
After Wednesday's performance, Wilshere wasn't just Arsenal's man of the match. By this point, mere weeks after his 21st birthday, he is the man of the season as well.
And young as he is, it's a burden he's ready to carry.
After peppering Swansea's goal for nearly all of the second half, Arsenal entered the closing stages of the match still needing the breakthrough that would see them escape 30 entirely unwanted minutes of extra time.
In the first half, Arsenal had seemed disjointed, playing with a conspicuous lack of confidence. In the second, poor confidence gave way to poor finishing and eventually frustration. And then, Jack Almighty worked his miracle.
Wilshere's deftly taken left-footed strike proved the difference on the scoresheet. And in almost every way, the Englishman also proved to be the difference between the teams.
That importance had been insinuated even before kickoff. Manager Arsene Wenger paired Abou Diaby with Francis Coquelin in the deep-lying portion of Arsenal's midfield, perhaps in response to the seven fouls Wilshere suffered at the weekend against Manchester City.
7 - Jack Wilshere was fouled today the joint-most times of any player in any Premier League game this season. Bruised.— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) January 13, 2013
Freed up and allowed to play a more advanced role in the center of the park, Wilshere flourished. He worked and inspired, pushed and led by example, passed and shot—and eventually he won the match.
Said Wenger, per Arsenal.com:
He is at the complete midfielder. He can play anywhere. He is a guy who can dribble and give a final ball, so the closer he is to goal, the better it is. He has quality and enthusiasm, and love for the game.
That is the most important thing to me.
The result against Swansea, in truth, should have been secure long, long before. But this time, just this once, it feels possible to let that slide. The result was too much of a relief—and Jack's goal provided too much release—to nitpick about that for now.
Instead of extra time and extra headaches, Arsenal stayed alive in their most likely challenge for silverware this season. Wenger's third-round unbeaten streak in the FA Cup remains alive, and the Gunners might have even built momentum for this weekend's league trip to Chelsea.
Don't misunderstand. Arsenal have problems and action is imperative in the transfer market this month, but with Wilshere coming into his birthright as Arsenal's most influential player, there's reason to believe the future can be a better place.