I was watching Aaron Ramsey particularly closely on Saturday afternoon. Along with everybody else I have been aware of how much less we are without him in the starting line up and how much more we seem to be when he plays. We all see the goals and the assists and the miles of turf covered but against Sunderland it was something else that struck me about our Welsh Wonder.
During the first half he made a couple of mistakes, or at least what appeared at first glance to be mistakes. On one occasion he attempted some quick fire passing on the edge of our area and we lost possession. On another he fired a ball so hard back to Per that our big German could only look startled as it flashed past him. A bit ring rusty I thought. The lad’s been out injured and his radar is perhaps a little off.
Then, watching the game again I realised something. There wasn’t anything wrong with what he was trying to do. At their very best our players hit the ball to each other in tight spaces, hard and at speed and regardless of where they are on the pitch. It is what makes Wengerball the mesmerising thing of risk and beauty that we all know and love so much. Playing to our full potential we are not content to simply walk the high wire, we want to juggle blindfold as we step across the void. It is this audacious approach to the game which makes you and I gasp and brings the crowd to its knees.
Aaron Ramsey typifies this approach and without him in the team we seem less adept at it. When he starts firing the ball at his team mates and trying to move it fast and unexpectedly in our half of the pitch isn’t he in fact galvanising the team? Isn’t he reminding them and us how Arsenal, at its best, out plays the opposition, bamboozling them with fast intuitive football?
Having him back will increase the tempo at which we do things and, I suspect, increase as well the amount of the ball we have to work with. His other great skill lies in the positions he takes up on the pitch. Always the third point in the triangle, always in space always annoyingly between the lines of the defenders. He must be as much of a joy for someone like Mesut to have around, whether centrally or moving in from the flanks, as he is a pain in the backside for the opposition’s defence.
That is perhaps his greatest strength of all. He brings others into the game and gives everyone else an option, an out ball, a vital greased cog in Arsène’s Beautiful Machine. The highlights video versus Sunderland is a remarkable thing. I hadn’t actually been aware of Aaron being as involved as he obviously was and being so very effective almost all of the time.
Watching live we tend to notice the big moments both good and bad. The odd missed or over hit pass, the occasional breathtaking display of skill as he turns two defenders into confused, bewildered and baffled men, but not always the rest of his contribution. He failed to convert a couple of chances but still continued to make those killer runs into the box, never allowing any disappointment to either dissuade him from trying again or to make him try too hard the next time.
Allied to Mesut’s truly astonishing from and leadership on the pitch this season, Campbell’s steadily growing confidence and with the Ox still having his best up his sleeve it is amazing how much more positive things look compared with this time last week. That is partly because we won a football match on Saturday afternoon, certainly, but it also has a lot to do with the return of our wonderful Welsh wizard and the feel good effect he spreads throughout the team. I’ll tell you who would have liked him – Brian Clough. The way he passes and immediately moves into space ready for a return ball then looks to move it on quickly again would have been right up his street. He is, at his best, the heart of the team.
Can he step up another gear tonight and help us to secure progress through the Champion’s League group stage? Can we get a bit of a run of results going again and lift our confidence? Yes, obviously, to both questions. Whether things will go our way is a little less easy to predict but the result on Saturday and the performance in the previous Champions League match when we outclassed Zagreb ought to have set the team up perfectly for what is effectively a knock-out match.
It is of course a knock-out with a difference. A bit like a certain Friday night in May back before mobile phones and home computers when we needed to win by two clear goals, a draw will be good enough for the home side. In fact they can lose 2 – 1 and still qualify. That break away third goal they scored at The Emirates may yet prove to have been far more important than anyone might have guessed. If we are leading 2 – 0 with ten minutes to go my many years of sobriety may be sorely tested. It will, at the very least be a tense affair.
According to the experts it’s important we don’t fall behind. Where would we be without experts? I don’t think there is much we can do differently from the way we approach every game. We don’t want to follow Man United’s example but we cannot allow that or any other negative outcomes to play on our minds. George Graham’s mantra before sending his players out at Anfield on that fateful night was keep it tight first half, score early in the second and then the pressure will begin to build on the side playing for a draw. I doubt Arsène can better that blueprint tonight. I certainly won’t be feeling any tension before there is at least an hour on the clock, but will probably pour myself a cup of camomile tea around the 70 minute mark if we still haven’t scored.
While it would have been preferable to have wrapped all this up long ago the excitement of this fixture has really enlivened what might have been a dull and pointless game. Edge of the seat stuff with a chance to dine with Europe’s elite if we win by the requisite amount or grub about in the bins with the likes of Spurs if we don’t. Not exactly a shit or bust scenario. We would be in what we used to call the Fairs Cup if things go wrong and I am old enough to recall when Arsenal fans wouldn’t be quite so sniffy at the chance to win the Fairs or UEFA cup. Perhaps it is a measure of the level to which Arsène has lifted us that, along with the League Cup, these are seen as such second rate baubles nowadays.
On a personal note before I leave you to debate whether Theo should start ahead of Olivier (no by the way) (unless Arsène says different, in which case yes) I would like to welcome our own leader back into the fold. In his absence the place has felt a little like a ship without a rudder or a skipper. As much as Andy Nic and myself have tried to trim the sails and keep the tub afloat it is and always has been George’s energy and vision which drives the good ship Positively Arsenal along and having him back among us is far more important to me even than having Aaron back on the pitch. Welcome back George, let’s hope your return is marked by a famous victory.