Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Can Aaron Ramsey save Arsenal's campaign?

It’s difficult to fault Wenger’s reasoning.
At the beginning of the 2011/2012 season, Arsenal suffered a crisis as first Fabregas and then Nasri (and Clichy (and Eboué…)) departed the club.  They wanted to go, and there was very little that could be done to stop them.  Then Wilshere got injured and, with our midfield in tatters, Arsenal’s fortunes rested almost entirely on the abilities of one player: Robin Van Persie.  Everybody – Arsenal fan or not – knew that RVP was the only reason Arsenal were able to make top four, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that, during that season, he was competing for the title of best player in the world.  Every time he scored we roared with pride, and every time he was involved in a tackle we suffered myocardial infarctions.
But RVP wanted out.  He had one season left on his contract, and rather than letting him go for free in 2013, Wenger made the decision to sell him at an inflated price to Ferguson (whom, he has since told us, he suspected was preparing to retire) in order to cover the costs of bringing in three less talented but still very capable European players: Olivier Giroud, Lukas Podolski and Santi Cazorla.  An attempt to start rebuilding the team back to pre-2012 levels, and to spread the goals throughout the team so that a single injury or suspension didn’t leave us high and dry.  And, for the 2012/2013 season, that worked.  Podolski, Cazorla and Giroud, alongside a rapidly improving Walcott, more than covered the loss of Van Persie and kept Arsenal in the Champions League spot.
So far, so good.
We come now to the 2013 transfer window.  Arsene, as he had known all along that he would, now had more funds available as new sponsorship deals were agreed and the costs of the Emirates stadium finally started to wind down.  With a squad evidently capable of making the top four by themselves, he looked to add some real world-class firepower, something to give Arsenal an edge. First he targeted Higuain and then Suarez, before finally nabbing Özil in what was considered a fantastic coup.  Only a year after losing an aging RVP, Arsene had managed to replace him with a younger and equally (or more?) talented player, but this time he had a squad that could carry on and win games even if Özil suffered suspension or injury.
[Note: when I say “replace” I am talking in terms of his role as “world-class player”; obviously Özil was not a positional replacement for Van Persie.]
Now, not every decision Wenger’s made in these years makes sense, and there have been some misfires – Park Chu-Young, for example, and £40,000,001 for Suarez, and not spending this January, and the lack of substitutions at half-time on Sunday – but, in having to rebuild a team almost from the ground up, I really can’t fault the logic of the steps I’ve described.  Logical, calculated, smart, rebuilding a squad in crisis.
So can someone tell me how we’ve ended up back where we started?
Somehow, once again, Arsenal seem to be entirely reliant on one player.  Contrary to expectation it isn’t Mesut Özil or Jack Wilshere (both of whom, I think we can all agree, have underperformed), but a man who, as recently as one year ago, many Arsenal fans were writing off as useless: Aaron Ramsey.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read (or heard) variations on this sentence since Sunday: “Now that Ramsey’s back, [insert player here] will perform better“.  Aaron Ramsey will relieve pressure from Arteta; Aaron Ramsey will make runs for Özil; Aaron Ramsey will create goals for Podolski; Aaron Ramsey will get on the end of crosses from Gibbs and Sagna; Aaron Ramsey will share the burden with Giroud; Aaron Ramsey will liberate Cazorla and Rosicky; Aaron Ramsey will provide cover for Vermaelen and Mertesacker; Aaron Ramsey, Aaron Ramsey, AARON RAMSEY!  Nobody’s making a big deal about it, but everybody’s saying it – somehow, the performance of almost every player in our team (maybe not Szczesny) seems dependent on the availability and talent of Aaron Ramsey.  And now, finally, he’s back.
Here’s my concern: what if he’s not up to it?
Don’t get me wrong, I think he’s a great player (in fact I was saying it before all of you were), and his stats for this season are downright impressive: despite having only featured in 19 league games (including two from the bench), Ramsey is Arsenal’s second top scorer.  He has more Man-of-the-Match awards than any other Arsenal player, more tackles per game, and more passes per game.  Only Özil and Giroud have more assists in the Arsenal team, and both have played in more games than Ramsey.  [Stats retrieved from whoscored.com].
But what if these figures aren’t Ramsey’s innate ability coming through?  What if it was just a purple patch of form, such as we saw with Nasri before he left, or Arshavin when he first arrived?  What if we’re about to see the return of the hard-working but often ineffective player that infuriated so many in 2012?  That’s my fear.  What if…what if Aaron Ramsey just isn’t that good?
I hope he is.  I really REALLY do.  But Arsenal are currently struggling to make the Champions League and we have a must-win semi-final against Wigan this weekend, and once again the perception seems to be that we’re entirely dependent on a single player to keep our season afloat.  But this time it’s not a proven Dutch striker with a chocolate foot and over a decade’s experience of top-flight football; this time, it’s a 23-year-old Welshman with a history of injury problems and less than a full season of first-class form.  Will he be up to the challenge?
For Arsenal’s sakes, he’d better be.