Benjamin Blake looks at the return to form of Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey.
In June 2008, Arsenal captured the most coveted young talent in Britain for just under £5m from Cardiff City. Aaron Ramsey was being hailed as the future of Welsh football having made his Championship debut aged just 16 years 124 days.
After an impressive display in the FA Cup final against Portsmouth at 17 years of age, he moved to London where made a bright start, quickly becoming a fan favourite. Despite not starting regularly, it was clear to see why Arsene Wenger had pulled out all the stops to ensure he chose them over Manchester United. In his second full season in the Premier League, “Rambo” was forcing his way into the first team on a regular basis Gunners fans were starting to see a player that would undoubtedly go on and become one of the world's finest midfielders.
He was scoring goals, pulling the strings from midfield and making fans wonder how much Cesc Fabregas would be missed if he were to join Barcelona the next summer.
Everybody knows of the fateful day at the Britannia and everybody knows of his Ramsey's struggles since. Arsene Wenger came out and said that there would be no long-term restrictions physically or mentally and that his young welsh protégé would return to his previous level.
Unfortunately for him, another gifted youngster by the name of Jack Wilshere had become a fixture in the first team squad and limited Ramsey's inclusion. Loan spells at Cardiff and Nottingham Forest were meant to provide Ramsey with a platform to build up his fitness and confidence, but just over two years on, we still haven't seen Ramsey push on to what we all know he could have been.
It is hard to say exactly why Ramsey has struggled to regain top form as there are many reasons, but none definitive. Of course, a severe leg break is tough to recover from, but physically, Ramsey has been in peak physical shape for the majority of the last two seasons. Perhaps psychologically he has yet to completely recover from the blow by Ryan Shawcross, and although he will be the only one who can answer that question, it would appear not, considering his tenacity in the challenge during recent matches.
He was arguably overused last season, more out of necessity than anything else after the departures of Fabregas and Samir Nasri. He started last season brightly in an advanced midfield role, but sometimes he looked a little out of place so far up the pitch, dawdling on the ball too often and picking the wrong pass on occasion.
His goalscoring touch had also seemed to have evaded him and by mid-season he had already played 30 games in what was truly his first full season in the Premier League. This led to fatigue and in turn a loss of confidence, with the Emirates faithful keen to see him taken out of the side. And it has taken him the best part of a calendar year to regain his place as a regular starter.
Arsene Wenger's purchase and deployment of Santi Cazorla in the hole behind a striker meant Ramsey wasn't going to be first choice from the start of the current season.
Pair that with the fact Jack Wilshere has been used in a more advanced role during the campaign and it appears Ramsey is the odd man out. To accommodate Ramsey, he was shifted to the right wing position more often than not, which didn't play to his strengths, or to the fans enjoyment for that matter.
However, in January, following an injury to Mikel Arteta, Ramsey was called upon to play in an anchor man role in front of the back four, an unfamiliar position for the Welshman. Ramsey went on record to say that Wenger had had words with him before the game, explaining exactly what was required of him: discipline, simplicity and intelligence.
And while it's difficult to argue that Ramsey flourished in the Spaniard's role, it took Ramsey out of the firing line for fans and media alike due to the fact that he wasn't expected to contribute greatly to the attacking play. He could simply go about his business and do what was asked of him.
Playing in a deeper midfield position and taking on more defensive responsibility has brought about, amongst others, two major changes in Ramsey's game. The first is that Ramsey has become more responsible with the ball at his feet. Before his big injury, Ramsey was extremely effective receiving, turning and playing the ball quickly.
Rarely did he take more than three or four touches in the ball before passing. Last season and for much of this season, Arsenal fans had grown accustomed to him stepping on the ball and slowing play down or missing the opportunity to make the right pass because he took one too many touches. During his current run in the first team, it has been evident that Ramsey has played a much more simple game. He has distributed the ball much quicker and is often picking the right pass.
Ensuring he doesn't give the ball away cheaply is one of the primary responsibilities as one of the two holding midfield players and something he has achieved with aplomb recently. Playing in this manner has lifted the burden of being a creative force, allowing other, more accomplished players like Cazorla, Wilshere and Rosicky to do that job. Getting Ramsey back to performing the basics is Wenger's way of taking Ramsey out of the spotlight and letting him develop to greater effect.
The second improvement in Ramsey's game is his defensive nous. Starting at the Allianz Arena ahead of the likes of Diaby and Coquelin exemplified the trust Wenger now places in Ramsey to stifle attacks as well as start them. Since his deployment in the anchor role of midfield, Ramsey has kept the positional awareness and discipline off the ball in his play.
He has never been one to shy away from a tackle and has a very good footballing brain, but up until recently he has never been forced to take responsibility on the defensive side. Now that he occupies greater responsibility, his impressive stamina and ability to press the ball can be complimented and taken advantage of by being in the right positions at the right time. In Munich against the Bavarians, Ramsey made more interceptions than any other player on the pitch.
His improvement on the defensive side of his game and greater care with the ball has enabled him to also become more involved in the entire game. In the 4-1 victory over Reading, Ramsey was consistently moving into little pockets of space in more advanced areas of the pitch. The difference between the Reading game and perhaps sometime toward the beginning of the season is that Ramsey was decisive and effective with the ball.
He completed 78 of 85 passes with 37 coming inside the Reading third of the pitch and led both teams with 4 key passes. What's more is that when he did venture forward, he was in position to regain the shape of the team were the move to break down, shown by a match-leading 6 interceptions.
I for one am one of Ramsey's biggest fans and it pains me to hear fellow Arsenal supporters giving him a share of stick, deservingly or not. It seems strange that for a player with so much potential and under the tutelage of Arsene Wenger that Ramsey is not further along in his development than he currently is.
You only have to look back to his performance for the Wales U21 at 17 years of age team against England, where he ripped the English midfield apart until a tactical replacement of Lee Cattermole after just 31 minutes, to see the devastating potential this young man possesses.
But in recent weeks Ramsey has put in some extremely mature performances and it seems he is starting to build on a more structured approach to matches. His future may lie a little further up the pitch than he currently occupies but reverting to a deeper position has seen him come on leaps and bounds in a short space of time.
It's also easy to forget that Rambo only turned 22 a short while ago, but both Wenger and Ramsey himself will be expecting that he becomes a regular starter next season and solidifies his position in the gunner's engine room.
Based on his recent performances, there is every reason for Arsenal fans to expect the same. From there, nothing should stop him from becoming one of football's elite midfielders like he was destined to be.