Redemption from a season of ‘What ifs’ for Arsenal’s brightest star?

Aaron Ramsey cemented his pace in Arsenal folklore last weekend by scoring the deciding goal against Hull City in the FA Cup final, capping off a breakthrough season for the Wales international. But having finished their Premier League campaign just seven points behind eventual winners Manchester City, with the 16-goal midfielder missing almost half of the season through injury, both Ramsey and the Emirates support will have a lingering feeling of ‘what if’ when reminiscing on the 2013/14 campaign in the many years to come.

Netting the winning goal at Wembley will be a more than acceptable consolation prize for the Wales international. On a personal level, Ramsey’s stylish send-off to the campaign typified his rise from Emirates boo-boy to club talisman in the space of a single season. And for Arsenal, that low-swerving, near-post  strike in the 109th minute ended the club’s growingly burdensome nine year trophy drought. It’s arguable that no goal has been more important for the Gunners during the Arsene Wenger era.

But in the back of his mind, the 23 year-old will always wonder what could have been this season. Arsenal spent more days at the top of the Premier League table, 128, than any other side, and significantly more than champions Manchester City, with a miserly 15. That pomp march in pole position was dynamically charged by the midfielder, who started the season with 13 goals, seven assists and seven Man of the Match awards in his first 25 appearances.

In fact, there was a point before the turn of the year where Ramsey had scored more goals, provided more assists and made more tackles than any Premier League midfielder, which accordingly, must have put him pretty high up in the European rankings too. Back in November, he had made more touches (1,115), than any other top flight player and in December, he and Yaya Toure were the only Premier Leaguers to have made over 1,000 accurate passes.

For an Arsenal side infamous for its limited firepower  and lack of commitment off the ball, the Wales international’s inspiring displays and contributions at both ends of the pitch were vital to the Gunners cause. Most tellingly, he claimed four consecutive Player of the Month awards at the Emirates from August to November, in addition to the Premier League’s award in September.

Of course, the cut-off point came on Boxing Day, poignantly enough on Ramsey’s 23rd birthday, when he limped off against West Ham with a thigh injury. He would spend the next four months of the season on the sidelines.

The injury couldn’t have come at a worse time – Arsenal were in cruise control for the first half of their Premier League campaign, but late January to late March welcomed a string of unenviable fixtures in the most congested part of the season, including ties with Southampton, Liverpool twice (once in the league and once in the FA Cup), Manchester United, Everton twice, Tottenham, Chelsea, Stoke City, Manchester City and a double-legger against Bayern Munich in the Champions League.

In that time period, the North Londoners claimed just five wins from 15 in all competitions, resulting in only eleven points from a possible 33 in the Premier League. Perhaps most tellingly of all, during Ramsey’s four-month absence, Arsenal’s win percentage dropped from 68% with him in the side to 55% without him.

It would be wrong to suggest that if Ramsey hadn’t missed a quarter of the calander year through a thigh complaint that Arsenal would be Premier League champions right now and not Manchester City.

Theo Walcott, who was ruled out for six months and subsequently the World Cup with an ACL injury in January, was arguably a bigger loss. The Gunners lacked his pace, penetration and firepower in the second half of the season, and without it, for all their quality in the middle of the park, Arsenal’s midfield became incredibly one-dimensional.

Likewise, Arsenal’s fatal flaw this season has been their poor results against divisional rivals. The Gunners have taken just five points off Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City this season, resulting in an aggregate score of 18-5.

Considering Ramsey featured in a 6-3 defeat to the Citizens back in December, even recording an assist and statistically finishing as Arsenal’s best performer of the afternoon, it’s logical to assume that in spite of his prominent form, even he wouldn’t have been able to stop the North London outfit’s regular capitulations against those closest to them in the table. Against Chelsea for example, the match was over after 20 minutes when Jose Mourinho’s side found themselves 3-0 up with a one-man advantage. It’s hard to envisage how the Welshman could have made a notable difference.

Furthermore, considering the impact Ramsey could have had in the second half of the season is in many ways a moot exercise. Not only because effective time travel is yet to be mastered by humankind, but because it takes away from the fact that squad depth is Arsene Wenger’s responsibility. A more pressing question the Emirates faithful should be asking is where Arsenal would have finished if the Welshman hadn’t undergone a major breakthrough in form from August to December.

That being said, what the Gunners lacked most towards the business end of the season was a natural leader. Maybe not in strength of voice, but in terms of his energy and dynamism, his application of a never-say-die-attitude, best illustrated by his combative tackling and numerous sublime, almost unimaginable finishes, Ramsey was that driving force for four months of Arsenal’s campaign.  In that regard, one can only ponder where the Welshman’s performances could have taken the Gunners – we’ve seen a paralleled effect with Luis Suarez and Steven Gerrard at Liverpool this season, with their cavalier, all-or-nothing displays inspiring similar showings in those around them.

For that reason alone, Ramsey and Arsenal fans will always wonder how differently 2013/14 could have panned out for them, as if, in some parallel universe, the Gunners clinched the crown inspired by the 23 year-old’s breakthrough season.

But the winning goal against Hull City at Wembley does offer some bitter-sweet redemption. His performance in the FA Cup final showed the character and courage Arsenal have lacked in defining moments since their last trophy in 2005. Most importantly, it expelled a macabre shadow that had been looming over the club for nine years and was on the verge of engulfing Arsene Wenger.

Considering Ramsey’s wholesale criticism from the year previous, it’s been a stunning transformation.


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