Arsenal in 2010-11: Aaron Ramsey's Role in Arsene Wenger's New Squad
With apologies to Cesc Fabregas, Joe Cole, Mark Schwarzer, Guy Assulin, Gael Clichy, Laurent Koscielny, Yaya Toure, Carlos Vela, Nick Powell, Papa Diakhite, Simon Kjaer, Mikel Arteta, and Yoann Gourcuff, I'd like to turn the spotlight out of the realm of shadow and mystery (read: conjecture and idle speculation) for a moment if I may.
Last week, Arsenal reported that 19-year-old Welsh phenom Aaron Ramsey, whose late February injury was as tragic as it was avoidable, signed a new "long-term" contract with the club.
Though generally overlooked last Tuesday, not only because of the excitement of the transfer window, but because of the midfielder's horrific late February injury, this announcement means a lot.
Considering his form throughout the 2009-10 campaign, and especially in light of the way he stepped into a bigger role when the injury bug struck, the youngster may have been a hot commodity right now had he not suffered a double leg break.
And if not for the announcement of the new contract, the midfielder's grizzly, season-ending injury might simply have pushed the "Aaron Ramsey bidding war" back by a year.
The long-term deal not only signals that Arsenal have every expectation of a full recovery, which is a blessing in itself, but that Arsene Wenger is committed to increasing the midfielder's role in the Gunners' plans in the coming years.
Recovery Roulette: How Certain Is Ramsey's Return to Form?
Ramsey's career prospects will depend on how well he can recover the full range of motion, the agility, and the confidence with which he played before his injury.
In the immediate aftermath of the Feb. 27 incident, it is not surprising that many fans' minds immediately flew to Arsenal players Abou Diaby and Eduardo da Silva, who suffered similar injuries in 2006 and 2008, respectively.
The Gunner faithful can be pardoned for wondering, "Why us?" four months ago. These days, the more salient question is whether and when Ramsey will be able to recover physically and psychologically from his long ordeal.
From the outset, it was clear that the double leg break would end Ramsey's season, and that the rehab process would necessarily be long and grueling in order to strengthen atrophied muscles and encourage healthy, firm regrowth of the broken tibia and fibula.
On March 1, Arsenal announced that Ramsey had been released from the hospital following successful reparative surgery. Although the club was reluctant to publicly commit to a timetable, Wales manager John Toshack, who visited Ramsey upon his release, revealed somewhat optimistically that September was the target date.
Less than three weeks later, on March 20, Arsenal announced that Ramsey had started walking without crutches, and Wenger said that "everything has been going to plan."
Just over a week ago, on May 27, the three-month anniversary of his injury, Ramsey told the Daily Mail that he was confident and upbeat, even going so far as to say that he regarded the recovery period as a test of character: "...whether you can come through it and come out a better person for it at the end. Hopefully that's what I can do.
"At the moment it may feel like everything is against you, but it will turn out OK in the end."
The same Daily Mail piece took for granted that Ramsey would not be back until early next season. One way or the other, it seems clear that Ramsey will return in time to see significant action in the coming season, and that, if his words and the club's actions are any indication, he has not been overly traumatized by his injury.
The issue of psychological recovery compounding the difficulty of a serious injury has never been more relevant to Arsenal fans than in the last couple years. Though doctors insisted he was fully recovered after a year and a half of physical therapy, Eduardo has seemed tentative, less confident, a completely different player since last August. Many fans have already drawn the conclusion that Eduardo will forever be a shell of his former self on the pitch.
Granted, Eduardo's injury was far worse than Ramsey's and also involved more complicating factors, but the Croatian striker's tragic case serves as an important cautionary tale.
Ramsey's own words may be encouraging, as are the less severe circumstances of his injury, but Eduardo's form reminds us that it's impossible to say for sure what we will see from Ramsey in 2011.
Crystal Ball 101: Divining Wenger's Intentions
Assuming Ramsey resumes the stellar rise to the elite ranks of the Premiership that he began in 2008, how will he figure into le Prof's long-term plans?
The possibilities are numerous, the key decisions figure to be at least a year away, and many variables depend on the intentions of persons outside of London, and even outside of Britain. Be that as it may, there are a few concrete scenarios that can be envisioned.
O Captain! My Captain!
The elephant in the room when talking about a box-to-box midfielder with superb vision, a silky touch, and the leadership qualities of a potential captain is the tenuous future of Cesc Fabregas.
Though I'm confident that No. 4 will stay with Arsenal through the 2010-11 season and probably for a year or two beyond that, Ramsey could be groomed to assume the captain's armband, or at least to take over Fabregas' position in the Arsenal formation. He is that good.
Stuck in the Middle
Ramsey will not be a starter when he returns from his injury and, as the team is currently constituted, will struggle to find a place amid tough competition for playing time in the middle of the pitch.
Samir Nasri, while Wenger has trained him to play on the wing, is another attacking player who prefers to play in the middle.
Alex Song emerged this year as one of the league's best young defensive midfielders and in a year or two may become one of the league's best defensive midfielders, period.
Diaby and Denilson split time alongside Song in the 4-2-1-3 this year. Both the 24-year-old Diaby and the 22-year-old Denilson have been proteges of Wenger's since 2006. Wenger's faith has begun to pay dividends, as both have seen steady improvement in their greatest areas of weakness over the last two seasons. Diaby, in particular, has emerged as a strong midfielder, despite nagging inconsistency.
Ramsey would be underutilized as a primarily defensive player. However, in the current setup, he would be most likely to see time in the rotation with Diaby and Denilson, and on Fabregas' off days.
A Formal Switch?
Arsenal's 4-2-1-3 formation developed, at least in part, out of the departure of Patrick Vieira in 2005 and of Mathieu Flamini and Gilberto Silva in 2008. Since then, Arsenal simply haven't had the central midfield personnel to support a traditional 4-4-2.
Cesc Fabregas is an energetic and assiduous defender. He is not a defensive-minded central midfielder, nor does he possess the imposing physical presence of a traditional holding midfielder (which he would not need in a 4-4-2, anyway).
With another two-way player the likes of Ramsey, however, who is as tenacious in defense as he is creative going forward, Arsenal would once again have the option of playing in a 4-4-2 (though the size of the Gunners' central defensive pairing would need to be upgraded).
Whether Wenger would prefer returning to the more traditional formation in which his club enjoyed its greatest period of success, or whether le Prof will keep the current setup, which allows greater flexibility and promotes the short-passing game the Gunners now favor, is beyond the scope of this piece.
Suffice it to say, both styles may become realistic options for the first time since 2008, and many more options will be made available as the current crop of young Gunners matures.
Clearly, while Ramsey's future at the club is secure, his role on the squad is very much up in the air and will depend as much on his own development as on the arrival and departure of other players.
His recovery seems to be on track, and there is every reason to hope that Ramsey will continue to progress beyond his already promising beginnings. Even were the squad to remain very much the same as it is today, however, the level of talent would make breaking into the starting 11 a challenge.
With the tight-fisted Wenger and partner-in-crime Ivan Gazidis both making uncharacteristically liberal predictions regarding the use of transfer funds in today's Telegraph, Arsenal may be rounding into a new era of transfer spending. Who knows what the roster will look like when Ramsey is healthy, let alone when he's ready to step into a full-time starting role.
Whatever the rest of the team will look like, it's hard to imagine the poised young Welshman not finding his niche. Arsenal supporters should look forward to watching him in red and white for many years to come.
23.6.10: For a reassuring recent update kindly forwarded along by Dave K, see this post on the fantastic Arsenal blog, ashburtongrove.
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