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Reflections on Sheffield United
I have spent the last day and a half reading numerous articles full of plaudits for Arsenal’s “youngsters” after their absolute demolition and dismantling of a Sheffield United side that is just a little over 16 months removed from being in the Premier League. And it has been a very gratifying experience. Those of us who have watched these kids in the Reserves last season as well as in Carling Cup cameos should not have been surprised at all at what they did to the Blades on Tuesday night at the Grove.
Here is where I would usually single out a player or two for special praise but it would inevitably be unfair as all of them had very good games. Of course, Vela really announced himself on an English stage with a hat-trick and a hand in two other goals but other less high-profile players came out as well. Kieran Gibbs, who I have long wondered why Arsene is so high on him, showed us what Arsene has been seeing all along. He was solid in defense and really contributed heavily to the attack.
The thing that is most striking about the side we threw out Tuesday night was just how similar their style is to the first team. This seemed to have shocked some in the media, but I don’t know why that is. Arsene has developed a brand of football and then sought to bring in youngsters with the right talent and attitude to learn it from the ground up. So it should be no surprise to see what is essentially our Reserves and Under-18 team players peforming the same intricate passing sequences that the first team does. In fact, there were moments in the game where the passing was more fluid and intuitive than it has been at times for the first team. All summer long I thought about how great it was going to be to see these kids get an extended run-out in the Carling Cup this year and they fulfilled my lofty expectations. I must say that I am looking far more forward to the Carling Cup this year than the FA Cup, in which I wouldn’t be surprised to see a number of the kids get a run-out it as well.
Jack Wilshere became the second-youngest Arsenal player to score a competitive goal for the club (behind Cesc Fabregas) when he caught Paddy Kenny at the near post from just outside the box in the 58th minute. It took about 15 minutes for them to find their rhythm, not surprising considering they don’t play together competitively on the kind of regular basis a Championship team does. Once they found it, they unleashed a barrage of goals and attacking football that left even the Blades’ Premier League veterans like Gary Speed and Lee Hendrie scratching their heads, chasing shadows, and probably contemplating retirement. Wilshere will require the same kind of kid-gloves handling as Walcott did in the beginning as we try to manage the expectations of the desperate English media and the national team’s supporters. But no matter what other England fans may think of Arsenal, they must feel confident knowing that one of England’s best (if not the best) under-18 prospect is under the careful guidance and protection of Arsene Wenger.
The barrage began in the 32nd minute and less than 28 minutes of game time later, the kids led 5-nil. Vela produced some stunning finishes and his calmness and coolness in finishing immediately reminds one of Eduardo. But it wasn’t just his goals that impressed. Vela showed he has the potential to be an all-around attacking player by coming up high and distributing the ball, holding play up, dribbling around four Blades defenders including a clever nutmeg. His vision helped Nicklas Bendtner get on the scoresheet twice as well. In the space of less than 20 minutes, Vela had a hand in four goals. He is the living example of how beneficial loan spells can be for a young player. Vela matured greatly through his spell at Osasuna last year where he was a regular starter for a La Liga side facing top competition every week. The match on Tuesday should dispel any doubts about his talent, composure, and his ability to cope with English football.
I should also mention Fran Merida who did not go back out on loan this season after coming back from Spain over the summer. It was reported that Fran wanted to stay with the club and Arsene felt he would be best served by training with the first team on a regular basis. Merida’s vision and passing was sublime especially a perfectly weighted through ball that should’ve meant a hat-trick for Bendtner. Johann Djourou put in the best performance by an Arsenal center-back all season showing much confidence – of course, when you’re team has a 5-nil lead its a bit easier to be confident in defense.
In the post-game press conference, Arsene said that he would not hesitate to play any of these players in the Premier League and we can all see why. Already people are wondering whether Arsene will stick with the kids should we meet up with Spurs again or should we get to the semi-final or final. Desperation for silverware is not a good enough reason to deprive these kids of what they will have earned should we get that far. I am completely confident that Arsene will field this side with maybe 1 or 2 changes for the entire competition, final and all. For me, the fourth round of the Carling Cup can’t come soon enough.