“What if?” It is the tantalising sporting question which generates so many unanswerable debates among football fans. What if Frank Lampard’s strike against Germany in 2010 was correctly awarded as a goal? What if John Terry hadn’t slipped in his run-up on that fateful night in Moscow?
For a selection of Arsenal fans, a campaign which bore so much early promise only to fade away once again has prompted a number of these questions. Of course, come May 17th the Gunners could be lifting the FA Cup and ending a trophy drought that has now lasted a staggering nine years. But considering the club’s strong initial showing in the Premier League, Arsenal’s latest collapse has left numerous supporters pondering what could have been.
For the Gunners’ faithful, the injuries to three key personnel in particular at the business end of the season have led them to wonder “what if?”
Aaron Ramsey’s performance at the weekend against Hull offered a bittersweet reminder of what Arsenal have lacked in his absence. A formerly maligned figure at the Emirates, the Welshman’s performances before his injury had silenced his critics and made the 23-year-old one of the club’s key personnel. With nine league goals, Ramsey has already improved significantly on his previous statistics and has provided a crucial source of goals from midfield.
It isn’t a coincidence that Arsenal’s downturn in form came whilst the Welshman was absent. Had Ramsey been fit and maintained his performance level for the entire season, the midfielder would surely have been a shoo-in for the PFA Young Player of the Year award. Injury deprived Arsene Wenger of one of his best midfield options at a critical stage of the season and Arsenal fans have been left to wonder what difference the Welshman could have made.
Another who returned from injury at the weekend and showcased his talents at the KC Stadium was Mesut Ozil, the club’s record £42.5 million summer signing. The German international had come in for some criticism since the turn of the year for a noticeable dip in form, with the former Real Madrid star’s weak penalty against Manuel Neuer epitomising these struggles.
But it musn’t be forgotten that this is the same player that was said to have inspired Arsenal’s early season form. Sunday’s confident victory was the first time that Ozil and Ramsey had played together since Boxing Day and the attacking duo reminded the Gunners’ fans of what they had been missing. Wenger noted in his post-match interviews that the pair sharpened Arsenal’s “cutting edge” and supporters on Twitter have been bemoaning the injuries which have kept the two out of action for so many of the club’s crucial fixtures.
Aside from Ozil and Ramsey, the other significant absentee which Arsenal fans have been left to rue is Theo Walcott. The winger sustained a serious cruciate ligament injury back in January which has denied the club one of their most potent attacking outlets at the business end of the season.
During Arsenal’s downturn in form, the club have been criticised for a lack of pace in their attacking play. Walcott’s injury has limited Wenger’s options in the wide areas and deprived the side of explosive pace on the counter and the ability to get in behind.
Ozil. Ramsey. Walcott.
Injuries are part and parcel of the game but the Gunners have inevitably struggled in the absence of three such key personnel. In the same way that United have to an extent suffered in Robin Van Persie’s absence, Arsenal have seen their attack blunted in circumstances largely out of their control.
But then as always with such speculative questions, where does it stop? Beyond these injuries, a number of Arsenal fans have been citing “what if” moments at a number of points throughout the season. What if Ozil didn’t miss that penalty? What if Wojciech Szczesny hadn’t been sent off in the first leg against Bayern Munich?
We will never know what Arsenal could have accomplished had they retained the services of Ozil, Ramsey and Walcott for their crucial run of fixtures between February and March. But what’s done is done. Rather than feel aggrieved by what might have been, Arsenal supporters should look forward to what the future may hold for them.
Their season may yet still end in success. Although it may feel like a failure having led the league for much of the campaign, a potential top four finish and FA Cup triumph would have been welcomed back in August and could provide a valuable platform for the club to build upon.