Monday, December 11, 2023

When the cult becomes the cure

It’s always difficult to write about ‘soft factors’ in football because you can’t opine on them with any great certitude. They are difficult to measure and, in truth, fans and pundits often lean too much on ‘soft factors’ because sometimes it’s difficult to read or understand exactly what a coach wants from their team.

However, they certainly exist. You simply cannot deny the existence of momentum, confidence, team chemistry- they are like oxygen, you cannot see them but you know they are there. It’s fair to say that Aaron Ramsdale has confounded expectation based on the technical aspects of goalkeeping alone and that’s the most important facet of his influence on this Arsenal team.

The clip of him joining in with his own sledging at Leicester last weekend was the cherry on the cake of his gravity defying free-kick stop from James Maddison. When pressed on his decision to indulge the Leicester support, Ramsdale himself suggested that it gives him extra motivation.

“It raises my concentration levels. If I’m giving a bit to them and I make a mistake I know I’m going to get absolutely slaughtered. I can’t let anything in if I’m giving them a bit of banter.” Engaging with the opposition support has been but a part of his charm so far, he has built a rapport with the Arsenal support too. Goalkeepers have a unique opportunity to act as crowd conductors given their constant proximity to the stands.

Again, this goes beyond his technical goalkeeping quality or even his distribution, both of which have exceeded expectation so far. He is an extrovert and that always plays well with supporters, especially those inside a stadium. This fact is understandable, even if it means we over index extroversion, leading to an unintentional distaste for introversion.

Introversion is undervalued in pretty much every aspect of professional life and especially in football, which is still a very macho and therefore, extroverted space. That said, any team (in sport, or any other profession) requires people that are dotted all along the introvert / extrovert spectrum.

I think it’s fair to say that Arsenal have been too far towards the introvert end of the scale for quite a long time, especially in defensive areas. You need players that lead by example but you also need a player or two who are more challenging and prepared to bang heads together. Granit Xhaka’s value is partially because he is carved from this particular granite.

Benjamin White isn’t quite a fist pumper, Gabriel might turn out to be once he ages and his command of English improves. Tierney is a quiet, understated person if not an understated player. Bernd Leno is a much more introverted presence in the Arsenal goal. That’s only a weakness in the context of a quiet defence.

Ramsdale has introduced a hint of spice to the plate. On last week’s Arsecast, David Seaman said that he was much more of the Leno ilk during his time at Arsenal. When characters like Lee Dixon, Nigel Winterburn, Martin Keown, Steve Bould and Tony Adams are laid out in front of you, you probably don’t have to trouble the veins in your neck very often.

Arsenal needed a character like Ramsdale. It didn’t need to be in goal necessarily, Arsenal might equally have bought in a centre-half who filled the fist pumping brief, but they needed that character somewhere in the back line. While he is quite distinct from David Seaman in terms of character, Aaron fits more into the ‘beware of the ‘keeper’ mould like Wojciech Szczesny or Jens Lehmann.

On the most recent episode of the Tifo Football Podcast, Seb Stafford Bloor spoke glowingly of Ramsdale with the rejoinder, “for too long Arsenal’s goalkeeper has been the guy that stands between the posts and tries to keep the ball out of the goal.” I think that was a very apt description, Ramsdale does that but also seems to offer something a little extra.

I think it’s also significant that he has taken the gloves just as fans have been allowed back in stadiums and just as Arsenal have started to rebuild the team into a newer, younger model. He is riding a wave that he has helped to create, though there are a confluence of other factors he has benefitted from too. Timing is everything.

Ramsdale is well on the way to becoming an Arsenal ‘cult hero.’ Like ‘legend’, the term ‘cult hero’ is broad and unsubstantiated but usually decided by consensus. A cult hero is distinct from a legend, however. A legend is more straightforward to appreciate. Dennis Bergkamp is not a cult hero for the same reason that The Beatles are not a cult band.

A cult hero has to be associated with some kind of struggle- maybe they are a player that exceeds expectation or else isn’t considered the most talented player at the club but does the most to maximise their attributes. A cult hero is usually someone that is appreciated by the supporters of their particular club but not very far beyond.

Ramsdale’s short career prior to joining Arsenal has involved consecutive Premier League relegations. His signing was questioned by many, Arsenal fans or otherwise. That he has, to this point, moved so quickly to prove his doubters wrong makes him very firm cult hero material. Redemption is an underpinning virtue of the terrace cult hero. John Jensen’s solitary Arsenal goal lives on in folklore for a reason.

Perry Groves and Ray Parlour are prime examples. Players who were initially derided for a lack of quality but almost embraced their technical inferiority to their teammates and “stuck at it”, turning their work ethic into a key virtue. Emmanuel Eboue became a temporary cult hero (probably more of a mascot in the end) largely due to the guilt supporters felt for booing him so savagely in the game against Wigan in November 2008.

Arsenal supporters’ adoption of Eboue had the same vibe as a toddler giving a contemporary their favourite toy to play with for a few minutes when they realise they have been playing a little too rough. Ramsdale is a little distinct from some of the aforementioned though.

It’s not that Ramsdale is making the most of limited attributes, it’s that his level of talent has surprised us. Cult heroes also tend to have relatable qualities for supporters, last year I wrote about how Kieran Tierney’s salt of the earth personality endeared him to Arsenal fans.

Liking the players in your team is of secondary importance really but that doesn’t mean it is not important. Results are the primary driver and, in truth, there is a fair amount of overlap between those two factors. It’s difficult to connect with players that continually under-deliver. It’s still early days in Ramsdale’s Arsenal career but he has all of the ingredients of a cult hero and these ingredients are almost entirely defined by the soft factors he has brought to the team.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto– or like my page on Facebook

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