Sunday, December 10, 2023

It’d make you think

Right, well that’s all the bank holiday nonsense out of the way and now we’re going to go into a week that I predict will be interminably quiet and dull because we don’t play Newcastle until next Monday.

There’s no crisis, as such. No drama, nobody seeking explanations about what went wrong against Hull, and although there are still things in the season overall which are not great when you think about them, they’ve been done to death over the last couple of months and only the most masochistic would insist on doing it all again.

I mean, we could, but what’s the point at this stage? Have we learned anything new that would lend this debate more legs? I don’t think so. Even if Sunday’s win was a glimpse of what might have been if injuries hadn’t bollixed things the way they did. Per Mertesacker, speaking after Hull, said:

When you have your whole squad together for as long as possible, that can make a difference. We suffered a bit in the second part of the season but now everyone is coming back to full fitness. We’ve had some long-term injuries and it’s good to have them all back.

Of course we’re still without Walcott and Wilshere and Diaby (heh), but the difference Ramsey and Ozil make is obvious. What’s interesting, I guess, is that all season we’ve worried about the lack of depth up front, but in midfield we looked as well stocked as I think I’ve ever seen us. Yet the injuries that have crippled us have come in the area of the squad where we’re strongest. Or maybe it just shows you how important Aaron Ramsey has become in a short space of time.

We were discussing him on yesterday’s Arsecast Extra and I think you can almost trace his revival back to the point where he was given a new deal in December 2012. Earlier that month he’d been a point of discussion because the invective spat at him had almost reached a boiling point:

In his column, Tim Stillman said:

I genuinely struggle to see how a figure such as Ramsey could invite such hatred. I understand people not rating him as a footballer, but the froth mouthed bile I hear aimed at him so regularly is confusing. He seems a nice enough lad. He doesn’t lack application, whatever you think of his competence. Eduardo returned from a horrific injury with his quality compromised and became a sympathetic darling of our affection for it.

I wrote this:

My personal feeling is that there’s a very good player somewhere in Aaron Ramsey and that if, and when, it clicks for him he’ll be like a new man. But there’s no denying that at the moment he’s got some problems with his game which are exacerbated by the fact that every time he does something wrong there are wails of dismay and anger.

There are standards that are expected when you play top level football and sometimes he doesn’t live up to them, but he never hides, never goes missing, never shies away from the ball or a tackle, and that to me is a sign of a guy with strong character and who can come through this difficult spell.

Ramsey himself admitted that he was aware of what was being said and asked for some patience:

The fans let you know when someone is not doing the right thing but they have to be patient and get behind the team and individuals. They have to realise that. It can be such a massive help.

And on December 20th he was one of five players handed new deals. Along with Jack Wilshere, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Carl Jenkinson and Kieran Gibbs, he was told by the manager and the club that they had faith in and his talent. After Christmas he began to play more regularly in his favourite central position, dovetailing really well with Mikel Arteta as his energy in that area of the pitch helped drive us to a top four position.

This season he’s exceeded all expectations, way beyond anything I thought he was capable of at this point of his career, but sometimes that happens with players. Things just click and they don’t ever look back. It’s probably worth it from our point of view to do that though, because what he came through – both in terms of his injury and having to convince people he was a player – shows a character that is obvious in his performances and adds so much to this team when he’s in it.

It’s why I firmly believe, as I said yesterday, that his absence above anything else, is what caused our form to wind down like a battery operated toy. We coped at first, but just got slower and slower and slower and ultimately that’s what cost us our title challenge this season.

I know that in football there’s a tendency to deal in hyperbole (positive and negative), especially in the heat of the moment and especially when discussing players. One great goal makes a player world class, a few bad displays as he’s the worst anyone has ever seen, but what happened with Aaron Ramsey went beyond that at times. It’s not dissimilar from what’s been happening with Giroud this season.

I’ve stated my case there before, a decent but limited player who is not the be all and end all to our problems, but who became the lightning rod for them when things went pear shaped. If we’re amused and excited when we learn that the players hear the good stuff, shouldn’t that make us aware that they’re perfectly capable of hearing the bad stuff too? I don’t say it to suggest players are immune from criticism or analysis, only to suggest that there’s a means and a way of doing it.

I’ve been guilty of saying the wrong thing in the past and I’ll admit don’t feel good about it in any way. Yet quite what people want to achieve when they respond to players on Twitter or Instagram or other social media outlets, just to tell them they hate them or how they think they’re shit, is beyond me.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that it might have gone the other way with Ramsey. That his form didn’t recover in time and that the weight of opinion, as has happened before, might have made it difficult for the manager to continue with him – indeed, didn’t he suggest one stage it was easier to play him away from home because the fans were more on his side than at the Emirates?

Instead, Ramsey took the decision of the club and Arsene Wenger to give him a new deal as the opinion he should care about most and repaid that by flourishing into the player we have to today. The player that everybody loves. The player whose absence every Arsenal fan bemoans. The player whose presence might see us still involved in the race for the Premier League.

Makes you think, eh?

Finally, a word on David Moyes. I think it’s sad, he’s doing a fantastic job there, and I would love to see him continue his most excellent work. However, I think it was always going to end up like this. You just can’t put a manager who has won nothing in charge of players who have won everything. Regardless of the fact he was Ferguson’s choice, he didn’t have the stature or reputation to do the job properly.

They’ll now be better next season (with van Gaal in charge?), and it makes what we have do for the rest of this season and in the summer even more important. That might just be with regard to the transfer market, but we’re less than a month from the end of the season and we don’t know 100% what Arsene Wenger’s future holds. It’s not difficult to be worried about that on a very basic level – we don’t know who is going to be the manager next season, and for a club like Arsenal this is not something we’ve had to deal with for a long time.

I understand why there’s uncertainty and a lack of clarity, and in reality I don’t expect anything to be made clear until after the FA Cup final, but all the same it’s a situation that could become critical very quickly.

Right, that’s yer lot for this morning. Till tomorrow.

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