These are strange times at Arsenal, a club apparently embroiled in as close to an ideological debate as Premier League football is likely to get. Last week a familiarly fraught club AGM again raised that apparently irresolvable question: is this currently a successful club or not? The debate in its simplified form comes down to pots or profit: 15 years in the Champions League versus seven years without actually being champions of anything at all.
With this in mind it seemed fitting that a 1-0 home defeat of Queens Park Rangers, courtesy of Mikel Arteta's scrambled 84th-minute goal, should leave Arsène Wenger's team briefly in fourth place in the Premier League. No doubt Wenger will have reminded his players on Saturday evening not to start celebrating early and that, above all, they do not give out fourth-place finishes in October.
Questions of principle aside, this was a vital three points at the end of a trying week for the home team, just as it was a horribly frustrating afternoon for Mark Hughes, whose Rangers team held their own until Stéphane Mbia's senseless sending-off after 79 minutes and who remains convinced that Arteta was offside at least once in the move that brought the game's only goal. If there was further encouragement to be drawn both on and off the field for Arsenal it came, naturally enough, in the form of Jack Wilshere, a player burdened in these relatively thin times not just with reinvigorating a faltering midfield but with helping to justify, as the club's outstanding home-grown talent, his manager's thrift-driven modus operandi.
Wilshere was a joy to watch at times. And if the fanfare perhaps outweighs the actual content of his return to first-team football after 17 months, then for once this is understandable. Excitement about Wilshere stems from the basic pleasure of seeing a player of his type and rarity emerge in English football. His best moments were the way he manipulated the ball and made simple passing look simple. "It was amazing to be back – words cannot describe it. I was running around smiling," Wilshere said. "The last time I played it was with [Cesc] Fábregas, [Samir] Nasri and now there is Arteta and [Santi] Cazorla, so it's like playing in a new team."
Much has been made of the fact Wilshere had played with only four of his team-mates at the Emirates (Vito Mannone, Bacary Sagna, Thomas Vermaelen and Aaron Ramsey). The wider statistics reveal significant turnover: 41 players have appeared in the Arsenal first team since Wilshere last played. A fairly convincing first XI can be compiled of players who had not, before Saturday, played alongside the club's most precious young talent (for the record: Damián Martínez; Carl Jenkinson, Per Mertesacker, Ignasi Miquel, André Santos; Cazorla, Arteta, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain; Lukas Podolski, Olivier Giroud, Gervinho)
On the evidence of the second half Wilshere's return may also be good news for some of those around him. With Cazorla again very tightly marked Wilshere's thrust in the second half , when he played in a more advanced position, provided another kind of threat, forcing some desperate interventions as Rangers defended deep. The Spaniard's creative burden will be further lessened by the imminent return of Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Tomas Rosicky is also on the mend.
If there is reason for a cautious sense of optimism as Arsenal contemplate a spell of 15 Premier and Champions League matches in November and December, for Rangers there was little more than the consolation of a committed and well-drilled performance, undermined by Mbia's red card, to add to the nine red cards received last season.
"We do not have a discipline problem. We are not an aggressive team," Hughes said, and in fact Rangers controlled the midfield at times at the Emirates and had as many chances as Arsenal in the second half. This is an expensively acquired bottom-placed team with some outstanding players: Esteban Granero, Armand Traoré, Júlio César and Adel Taarabt all might have improved the opposition XI on the day. Hughes has received plenty of support during the current spell of almost six months without a Premier League win. The next three matches – against Reading and Southampton at home and Stoke away – look pivotal.
Man of the match Júlio César (QPR)