Last week, Arsene Wenger reflected on the maestro who has changed the mood at the Emirates Stadium. “You don’t need to scout to buy [Mesut] Ozil,” he said. “You just need money.”
Perhaps it was his way of deflecting credit for making a catalytic signing. Yet it was just as likely that, while the stylist in Wenger salivates at the £42.5 million (Dh252.4m) German playmaker’s gifts, the educator and the economist in him prefers rather cheaper success stories.
The Arsenal manager divided his transfer policy into three strands: the big-money moves he can now afford, the gems who had eluded others’ gaze and the almost institutionalised quest to find the best youngsters.
Mathieu Flamini, acquired without a fee in a summer when others were spending millions on less influential midfielders, falls into the second category. Aaron Ramsey, bought at 17, belongs in the third. Along with Ozil, they are the three pivotal players in Arsenal’s surge to the summit of the Premier League.
Yet, despite Flamini’s forceful displays and Ozil’s invention, it is Ramsey who is the early front-runner in the race to be crowned Footballer of the Year, just as it is the Welshman who merits the title of the most improved player in the Premier League in 2013.
It is a tale of remarkable improvement, of promise being realised, of Wenger’s patience being rewarded.
It is a reminder that a manager’s weakness can also be his strength. Wenger has often been criticised for persevering with his young players, rather than discarding them when their progress stalled. The brighter tomorrow he has long believed in seemed a fantasy world to some. Ramsey seemed a case in point.
Like Abou Diaby and Denilson, Johan Djourou and Philippe Senderos, he seemed a player whose initial potential could not be converted into enough high-quality performances to justify his place in the squad, let alone the side.
There were times when supporters seemed to use his nickname ironically; “Rambo” has had a rocky ride in his five years at the Emirates Stadium. Many wondered if the horrific injury he suffered at Stoke City in 2010, a double fracture in his right leg, had struck a terminal blow to his chances of justifying the hype that greeted his emergence.
Rewind a year and he was in and out of the team, sometimes a substitute, sometimes a reluctant right winger. Ramsey was part of the case for the prosecution of Wenger, the manager who did not know when to abandon his attempts to turn his proteges into luminaries.
When, last December, Ramsey was one of five young Brits to sign a long-term contract, he blended into the background. The headlines were dominated by Jack Wilshere’s decision to commit his future to the club.
Fast forward to the current day and the Welshman has leapfrogged the Englishman in the queue for places, just as he has outperformed his counterparts everywhere else.
The Ramsey of 2013 is not superior to the Ramsey of 2012 in just one respect: he is better in every aspect of his game. It is reminiscent of Frank Lampard’s breakthrough year, 2003/04, when he went from being a decent Premier League player to a world-class midfielder.
Ramsey is stronger, a finer passer and a bigger influence on the game than he was but the most obvious manifestation of his development, like Lampard’s, can be found on the scoresheet.
The statistics are startling. His first 148 games for Arsenal brought ten goals; so, too, have the last 14. The most recent, a sumptuous display of drive, control and inch-perfect finishing in Saturday’s 4-1 win over Norwich City, almost appeared the norm for Ramsey nowadays.
Now the challenge for Wilshere, scorer of an exquisite goal himself, is to emulate Ramsey by delivering so regularly.
Besides highlighting his terrific form, the Norwich game also illustrated Ramsey’s changing status. His 64th substitute appearance for Arsenal came because Flamini had been injured. He had been rested to face Borussia Dortmund on Tuesday. Now he is a shoo-in for the big stage.
It is a particular triumph for the casting director. Wenger has a disdain for the short-termism others exhibit.
Signed in 2008, Ramsey has been both player and project, an investment less of money (£5m) than time and faith. Now it is paying off. And how.
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