Aaron Ramsey has been Arsenal's outstanding player so far this season
An Arsenal team buoyed by comfortable away wins in the Premier League and Europe returns to the relative comfort of the Emirates Stadium with optimism restored.
Victory over Sunderland may have been expected (even if, had a few refereeing decisions gone the other way, matters could have gone sour quite easily), but the 2-1 triumph over Marseille in France saw Arsenal avoid the sort of disappointing start to a tough Champions League group that many had feared.
To add to the surprise and the general atmosphere of encouragement, the return to league engagements even sees Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger confronted with something approaching a selection headache.
When Mikel Arteta suffered a hamstring injury on the eve of the new season, he was a key part of the Gunners’ central midfield. Now, as he returns to full training, there is no guarantee he can command a place in the starting lineup.
Partly that is a result of the arrival of Mesut Ozil, whose presence forces the dropping of another player (initially, due to an ankle injury, that being Santi Cazorla). Partly it is the acquisition of Mathieu Flamini, a combative player who offers Arsenal a subtly different midfield option.
But predominantly it is due to the impressive recent form of Aaron Ramsey.
Arsenal face Stoke on Sunday, the team against which Ramsey broke his leg in harrowing circumstances three years ago. Wenger believes it has taken the Welshman much of that time to get over the injury (first physically, then, in a series of slow breakthroughs, mentally), but, after five goals in his last four appearances, he is now rediscovering the level that had been expected of him when he moved from Cardiff in 2008.
“It took him a long time to get completely over the injury,” Wenger said of Ramsey, at his pre-match press conference on Friday, reported by Arsenal's official website. “He showed a resistance to go into the fight for a long time.
“He's added goals to his game now, I always thought he could do that.”
He added: “I noticed in the last three months of last season that he was finally over the injury. I never feared he wouldn't come back. If you have an injury under the age of 20, you always have time to get back to your best.”
Ramsey certainly seems to be reaching a new peak, to such an extent that if it continues—and it remains a sizeable "if"—he may soon start to be rated more highly than Jack Wilshere (who, coincidentally, seems to be undergoing the sort of bizarre, negative reappraisal of his talents many young starlets are forced to endure).
"I'm happy with the way I'm playing,” the 22-year-old said on Wednesday, as reported by the Express. “I am playing with confidence, getting into positions and putting chances away."
Against Marseille, Ramsey operated as the most central of Arsenal’s midfielders, roughly 10 yards behind Ozil, who had the freedom to create (not that he actually did much of it in this particular match) centrally, forsaking the left-side responsibilities the player in his position might otherwise be given.
That led Wilshere to err left in compensation and, with Flamini dropping slightly deeper to screen, Ramsey to hold the middle (Theo Walcott covers the right, in defence and attack).
It was in possession that Ramsey was more important, however. According to UEFA's statistical records no Arsenal player attempted (and completed) more passes than Ramsey during the contests, while passes from Bacary Sagna and Flamini to Ramsey were the most common combinations (14 of them apiece).
In general, it was Ramsey who received the ball from defence and was tasked with moving it on. It was Ramsey, not Wilshere, who was Arsenal’s conductor.
This role, scheming centrally, was one Wilshere and Cazorla had been used to taking turns fulfilling—when both fit, at least. Arteta, then, had regularly occupied the base role Flamini filled at the Velodrome—but the Frenchman seems more naturally-suited to its “roll-your-sleeves up and get dirty” requirement, even if Arteta has made a fine fist of it before.
Arteta’s primary benefit to the side is as a voice of experience. As Wenger noted on Friday, per the Hackney Gazette, ”He is one of our leaders … our technical leaders as well ... and we are happy to have him back.” He also offers an assured penalty-taking option, although the value of both qualities is hard to measure with any great certainty.
Dropping Flamini, sitting Arteta deep and allowing Ramsey and Wilshere to continue their current roles (at least until Cazorla returns), would seem to make sense.
But the Spaniard’s return will only create a subsequent headache, likely forcing the omission of Wilshere or Ramsey (Cazorla’s natural left-footedness makes him the obvious man to seal that flank when without the ball and linking with Ozil more centrally while his side is in possession).
At this point, dropping Wilshere would seem the more likely option. And, hearing Wenger talk about Ramsey’s revival, it may just be the best thing for the England man.
“[Ramsey] had a difficult period in midseason when people became impatient with him and he lost confidence,” Wenger said. “Sometimes you give the players a little rest [and] they rebuild their confidence, think about their game and come back stronger. That is what happened to him.”
Similar benefits could come for Wilshere who, lest we forget, has had a run of injuries that have kept him out longer than Ramsey’s leg-break ever did (albeit with different mental scares).
Long term, whether Wenger sticks to the current skewed 4-3-3 or moves to a 4-2-3-1, it is Ramsey, Arteta and Wilshere that are competing for two spots in the first team. But that is in a mythical world where the team only plays one game.
The reality of the fixture list is that there are many games to be played, often more than two a week, and the same players cannot be used indefinitely.
“We are a squad and cannot play with 11 players for the whole season, but I believe that Arteta will get back in the team and Flamini and all of them will get their fair share of games,” Wenger opined, as reported by the Gazette.
“You calculate in the squad, the maximum the players can play [is] 70 percent of the games, and that means there is a lot of room for the other players.
“I think we have the right number, and when everybody is back we’ll have competition for places, especially in the midfield.”
Injuries apart, it is how this midfield core is constructed and rotated that will likely define Arsenal’s long-term chances. Assuming Olivier Giroud can remain fit and in form (without him, the Gunners are painfully short a viable leading striker, rendering much of this prognostication moot), how the midfield options mesh together, and how they are used to counter different opponents, will decide how far they can go in the Premier League.
If the French manager had the sort of options he has in midfield throughout the rest of his squad, title aspirations would be all the stronger.
As it is, juggling his midfield diamonds may hold the secret to whatever hopes they have.