Jack Wilshere made his long awaited return from injury on Friday night, playing 65 comfortable minutes for Arsenal Under-21s at the Emirates Stadium. Arsenal beat Newcastle United Under-21s 3-1 but the story of the evening, especially for the enthusiastic crowd of 2,831, was the return of Wilshere and Tomas Rosicky from long-term absences.
This was Wilshere’s first serious match for almost nine months, since he played 75 minutes here in the Emirates Cup in a 1-0 defeat of Wolfsburg. That was just a few days before he broke his leg in training and it has been an unfortunately long road back to fitness since then, as Wilshere only returned to full training last month.
But with this performance Wilshere looked on the way to being ready for first-team football in the next few weeks. This may have come too late for Arsenal’s title challenge but it may yet be in time for England’s Euro 2016 bid, given Roy Hodgson has said Wilshere will be in his squad for France as long as he proves his readiness before June. That show of faith may still be rewarded.
The tempo of under-21 games is so low that they are not a genuine fitness test, but Wilshere came through this game as well as anyone could hope for. He started in a deep midfield role, alongside 17-year-old Marcus McGuane in Steve Gatting’s 4-2-3-1 system. From the start Wilshere showed touches that marked him out as, along with Tomas Rosicky, the most accomplished player on the pitch, turning away from opponents in tight spaces.
Arsenal were far superior to the opposition and took an early lead through Dan Crowley, who skipped past two Newcastle defenders, before quickly following it up with another. Wilshere found Rosicky, who passed to Stephy Mavididi who finished well.
Wilshere was initially given a cautious role, spraying passes to either wing, but he grew in confidence, attempting some of his famous bursts forward with the ball at his feet. He spent a brief first-half spell out on the right wing, where he did not quite have the pace to beat left-back Liam Gibson on the outside.
Soon after the restart Wilshere fired a 25-yard shot just beyond Nathan Harker’s far post and as he grew in influence, he should have had an assist. He played one perfect pass through to Mavididi, eight minutes into the second half, but the young striker missed the finish. During his final minutes on the pitch Wilshere, although tiring, was skipping forward with the ball and enjoying himself. He even had a face-to-face confrontation with Newcastle midfield Henri Saivet after a late tackle. 20 minutes into the second half he was replaced to warm applause by 17-year-old Josh Dasilva.
Tomas Rosicky was also impressive after two months out with a thigh injury sustained against Burnley in the FA Cup. He played further forward than Wilshere, in the number 10 role, and looked comfortably up to speed. He supplied one assist for Mavididi but might have had two, after a tight offside decision disallowed a goal. He was replaced at half-time by Chris Willock. Serge Gnabry scored Arsenal’s third after Newcastle had pulled one back from a Krystian Bielik own goal.
This impressive performance from Wilshere does mean that he will automatically be fast-tracked into the Arsenal first team. Wenger said at his press conference on Thursday morning that Wilshere would play more than one under-21 game before being considered for the first team. Arsenal under-21s play Derby County and Swansea City next Monday and Thursday respectively.