Since the initial departure of Mathieu Flamini, many Arsenal fans have wanted a specific kind of player more than any other. Not an energetic, almost purely defensive midfielder of the Frenchman’s type, nor a replacement for Thierry Henry, who had left the year before; instead, there was a wish for a return to the ‘power’ of old. What Flamini and his wonderful but all too short-lived partnership with Cesc Fàbregas (with Aliaksandr Hleb and Tomáš Rosicky flanking them) showed was that the definition of ‘midfield power’ goes beyond the 6’4″ broad-shouldered, physical Adonis, with the capability to stride from his own penalty box to the opposition’s in a single bound. Instead it could come from high energy and supreme technical skill.
With Abou Diaby’s constant injuries, no such ‘all-rounder’ came to the fore. Players who are already sculpted with those qualities are both difficult to find and very expensive once found. The beautiful quartet were broken up steadily, first by Rosicky’s long-term injury, then by the departures of Flamini and Hleb. Arsène Wenger was unable to replicate their brilliance, and so went a slightly different way with it all. There was a patience required. As he himself said, if you cannot ‘buy superstars’, you must make them.
Alex Song eventually took on the ‘power’ but so little of that was focussed further forward until 11/12. Samir Nasri became the wide, creative dribbler. It was no cheap imitation, but anyone claiming it represented an upgrade would have to be lying, blind, or mad. The cries for ‘a Vieira’ were ever-present from many corners. They had known the success that Vieira had brought them, and they understandably wanted that back.
Vieira was a truly unique player. He was, of course tall and powerful, exceptional off the ball and even better on it, capable of turning defence into attack with a single interception and able to sprint from one end of the pitch to the other, be it 1st minute or 121st, but he was, above all, a phenomenal leader, the kind of player who would drag others up to his level. If needs were he would be vocal and authoritative, but his greatest strength was his inability to accept the concept of a lost cause on the pitch. His teams always followed his example.
Arsenal’s search for the 747-engined deep midfielder with the heart of gold and the ability to match is drawing to its close. In that, they already have all the parts, they just need to finish the assembly process. It may be considered hyperbole to attach that label to Aaron Ramsey at this stage, but to recreate the Invincibles in the same blueprint is impossible. He is becoming that figure in a very differently constructed side.
It has not, of course, been an easy few years for him since Ryan Shawcross mangled his leg back in 2010. He was made to take on the departed Fàbregas’ position – to which he was relatively unfamiliar – immediately after the ex-captain’s departure, in a total mess of a side. He was impressive but highly inconsistent until the Great Full Back Crisis of 2011-12, which had an unexpected effect on him. His limitations had been masked by easier passing options around him; the makeshift full backs now sitting almost entirely behind the halfway line took away avenues on either side. It also meant that the wingers either side were made to sit slightly deeper and the midfielders behind him slightly higher, pushing him further up into more confined space where he was even more uncomfortable.
In the middle of that came Gary Speed’s suicide. Speed had been the Wales manager at the time and the man who had appointed Ramsey as his captain. The shock loss of such a figure was impossible to brush off, yet Arsenal’s squad was so thin that there was almost no option for him but to attempt to do so.
It was his first full season after the break. The fatigue, poor form and external circumstances exacerbated one another and Tomáš Rosicky’s return pushed him out of the first eleven, for a while. Games came, mostly from the bench, until Mikel Arteta’s injury at home to Wigan, with only a few matches remaining. At this point they were yet to win a single league match that season without Arteta. The haywire partnership of Laurent Koscielny and Thomas Vermaelen needed all the protection it could get. Like Jack Wilshere after him, Alex Song’s presence was needed further forward, and he obeyed those instructions to great effect; the lack of tracking and abandonment of defending were not as needed. Ramsey was thrown overboard, while Song’s assists saved him from more savage criticism. The still-out-of-form and visibly struggling Welshman was unfortunate. Third was scraped, a new season began.
Song had been made to walk the plank, his services rendered useless therein. But rather than send Ramsey immediately into whatever position Song was supposed to be playing in his final season, the manager instead sent him to learn a few different facets of his trade out on the wings. Philippe Auclair cites a conversation with Wenger in his biography of Thierry Henry about playing central players out wide for a time:
“It’s sometimes a good idea, to deploy a player who has a future in the middle of the park on the flank. He gets used to using the ball in smaller space, as the touch line effectively divides the space that’s available to him by two; when you move the same player to the middle, he breathes more easily and can exploit space better.”
The merits of this more controversial of methods can be debated, but two things cannot: it has worked many times for Wenger, and Ramsey looks much more comfortable in the middle now than he did before his time out wide. What is also difficult to dispute is that Ramsey’s time on the wing was itself extremely mixed, at best. Often its merits were overridden by its misuse. The game away at Manchester City one where it was of use; QPR at home was not. There were some highly encouraging performances, but more somewhat demoralising ones. The wing tactic died after the Bradford game; few mourned it.
If that was all still not enough, Chris Coleman turned up and complicated matters by stripping Ramsey of the Welsh captaincy. The Arsenal man had been vocally against Coleman’s appointment. The new manager did not have the courage of Speed’s convictions; nor his managerial talent. It was just another layer of misfortune for Ramsey, but what stood out most were his performances. Effort habitual, consistency less so.
Even when not at his best, he still worked significantly harder than almost everyone else on the pitch, whatever position asked of him. What’s more, his issues were common for younger players. Poor finishing, ponderousness on the ball, hesitant decision-making are all so normal of players in his shoes, injury regardless. That perpetual effort, clever movement and unwillingness to become peripheral in games meant he always had a lot of the ball. His positioning in and around the box has always been excellent, but for many years his finishing did not exactly go with it. His fashioning chances others would not have almost became a flaw, as his visibility made him an easier target than someone who rarely shoots or finds space in the box.
Then the change came. Whether the boss planned to move him back to deep midfield at the turn of the year, who knows, but Arteta’s injury and the total dearth of defensive midfielders saw him stationed in his position, next to Jack Wilshere against West Ham and Liverpool at home. Its initial success, coupled with Wilshere’s fantastic game as a number 10 at home to Swansea, inspired Wenger to shift to using Ramsey and Arteta in front of the defence.
What followed was more relief than surprise. The Wilshere-Arteta partnership had been the cause of many problems in the team’s balance. With Ramsey there they were instantly stronger defensively but still disjointed and lacking edge further up the pitch. The rest of the season followed that very layout. Arsenal were bulidling on virtues less synonymous with the Wenger Era than previous sides: a strong defence, and a team which identified more with grit and fight than any Arsenal side since Vieira’s days, a side starting nervously but steadily growing more and more comfortable as itself. Ramsey embodied all of that.
At long last, he was excelling, every strength visibly improving, and every weakness visibly diminishing, with each passing match. The defensive side of his game has become fantastic, and he has been growing more and more impactful in attacking moves. His positioning is as intelligent as ever, and with Arteta beside him, he has the security to trust his first instinct to attack the ball.
His transitional play and dribbling remain below Wilshere’s levels, but the improvement in both has been distinctly noticeable. Finally he appears now to have the composure to match his timing and movement around goal. The 7 goals in the last 8 are just the start.
In more defensive setups he has been more useful off the ball than on it, and vice versa when the onus lies more with Arsenal. One issue he has solved is balancing the two. Rarely has he shown himself yet to be adept at being both in the same game, but there is enough evidence on all sides that he is getting there. As said before, his transitional play and speed with the ball, although improving continuously, still have a way to go.
Two issues that have gone under the radar are his minimal use of his left foot and his lack of aerial presence. At 6’0″, he could reasonably be expected to have more influence in defending and attacking set pieces, but if the rest of his game is any indication, it will come.
Overall, Ramsey is becoming a frightening player. At 22 years old, rough edges are to be expected; his remaining ones are eminently fixable, far more than the ones already smoothed. The Welshman is significantly more direct than Wilshere, but his game lacks the subtlety of his counterpart’s, as of yet. Development is needed on both sides.
He has not been a ‘post-injury’ player to Arsenal fans for some time, but to much of the wider world, it was merely the last notable thing that happened to him. The goal against Stoke and the glorious ‘shh’ celebration gave a feeling of having come full circle. He can become ‘Aaron Ramsey, brilliant footballer’ in everyone’s eyes, rather than just ‘Aaron Ramsey, leg break victim’.
Every new performance shows more improvement. He has won over his detractors at home, and many on the outside. Now all that is left is to solve the solvable and maintain his form. So far we have seen this renewed Ramsey sustained for six months. It is not unrealistic to think we could be seeing it for the next 10 years. It’s a wonder what a bit of confidence can do.
If a club wants to progress, one of the things it needs is better players than the ones it already has, assuming that’s possible. With that in mind, only one club in the world doesn’t ‘need’ Mesut Özil, and that’s Barcelona, seeing they have the only number 10 in the world who’s better. And even then, they could still make good use of him. Even without the deeper context of Arsenal and their current situation, Özil would instantly become the best player in his position at the club, thus making him needed.
Speaking of the only number 10 better than Özil, Arsenal sold him – as well as the man they’d planned to be his successor two years ago. Since the sales of Cesc Fàbregas and Samir Nasri, the lost creativity has been a cause for concern. In 2011/12, they scraped by in a poor league through mostly Robin van Persie’s incredible form, utilising the likes of Alex Song more creatively and, in essence, chancing it. With those two gone the next season, Santi Cazorla was almost alone in providing direct creativity high up the pitch. His being the only avenue made Cazorla easier to isolate, especially in big games and the first half of the season.
The move out to the left hand side remedied this, to a point, but neither Tomas Rosicky nor Jack Wilshere offer much in the way of goals and assists, still leaving Cazorla as the only proper direct creator. He made up for the wide creativity that had been lost, but there was still a chasm in the centre. It showed in the performances: defensively exceptional, but disjointed and meek going forward. They did enough to win their games, but only just. Özil offers variety on top his creative skill, fitting into both more possession-centric and direct counterattacking styles.
Özil’s propensity to drift into wide areas – generally the left – makes him ideal to play with both Cazorla and with Lukas Podolski. For the German national team, when Podolski is on the left-hand side and Özil at number 10, they sit in the standard 4-2-3-1 off the ball, but on it, Podolski tends to run on and play as a second centre forward, leaving Özil to find space on the left hand side and making it more of a 4-2-4 shape. He often does the same on the opposite flank, with Thomas Müller taking on the second striker role. This works especially well in games in which they play more on the counter. In games they control more, Müller and Özil tend to drift between eachother, as number 10 and pseudo-right winger.
Within those examples, there is a basic template of how Arsenal can and will use him. Podolski and Theo Walcott are both capable as the auxiliary second centre forward, with the £42.4million man wandering into their vacated areas out wide, for more reactive setups. Similarly, Cazorla and Özil could (and hopefully will) combine to great effect. Cazorla on either wing is a wide player in name only. He goes where the space is, and where he can have most effect, but with the left hand side as his base. Özil does the same but stationed from the middle. Özil’s wide movement is the best of any number 10 on the planet. When he will drift towards the left, Cazorla will exploit the space inside, and vice versa. The versatility and intelligence the two share will surely make them ideal team-mates, as soon as they can gain an understanding.
Something else that Özil does is enable Wilshere as a deep option again. His indiscipline last season was damaging to the side, but with more creativity higher up there is less need for him to charge forward. Like in his breakthrough season, his contribution will be the bonus rather than the necessity it appeared to be at times last year: That is how it should be. The reaction to Wilshere’s recent form is surprising as you would’ve expected people to know that he is very, very good. You would also expect people to be more rational about a player who has spent so much time injured and is only 21 years old. He has lost his place to Aaron Ramsey, who went through an almost identical cycle post-injury. It takes time. A minimum of pressure on Wilshere will be the best thing for him and at club level, that is what he has. With no reliance on him, even to play every week, Arsenal can let him steadily get his way back to full fitness and form.
The talk over this summer was, understandably, about the need for a striker, as Olivier Giroud remains the only legitimate centre forward at the club. But what can most strikers do with little to no service? All-round centre forwards who can bridge that gap are rare. Arsenal sold one last August and had their bids for another, Luis Suárez, very publicly rejected. The main problems in the squad, in order, were the need for creativity and the lack of depth in defensive midfield, up front and in defence. The former two have been fixed, but there still remain the issues of the latter pair.
Arsenal saw between 2007 and 2011, with the cases of 07/08 Emmanuel Adebayor, 09/10 Nicklas Bendtner and 2010 Marouane Chamakh, that top level service can make any striker look significantly better than they are. The combined talents of Özil and Cazorla mean that even Podolski and Theo Walcott are semi-viable backup options, should the worst come to the worst. Hopefully there will be some kind of signing in January – more likely, if any, to be a seat-filler than seat-seller, but someone who can cover for and challenge Giroud. That is, assuming Nicklas Bendtner hasn’t had a complete personality transplant and career revival… probably a safe assumption.
Still, just because Podolski and Walcott will now be able to do more passable impressions of lone strikers, it does not mean that any injury to Olivier Giroud will not cause mass worries. Going forward, as they are, they can do as they did in 11/12 and get by. Of all the summers that shouldn’t have culminated in ‘getting by’, this was supposed to be it. It’s not a disaster, but it could conceivably turn out to be.
The story is similar at the back. For once, the defence purely as itself is no cause for concern. With Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny forming a fantastic partnership, and the very strong full backs either side of them in Kieran Gibbs and Bacary Sagna (who in turn are well-covered), Arsenal – for a long time – have one of the best defences in the league. And Thomas Vermaelen, despite his flaws, is not a bad backup to have. In turn, they are well protected by the pairing of Mikel Arteta and Aaron Ramsey in front of them.
Bacary Sagna’s few games as a centre back have been very impressive but how much can really be ascertained from games against Sunderland, Fulham and Fenerbahçe? What’s more, all of those games had him next to Mertesacker, to whom his style is complimentary and who can make any central defender look good as long as they don’t charge out of the defensive line every few minutes. If the German is unavailable for any great length of time, there will be serious problems. None of the other three are strong organisers and are very similar to each other, stylistically. Only partnerships involving Mertesacker have any balance.
Even if one assumes Sagna will be fine, then there’s Carl Jenkinson at right back – who has done well but is still some way short of Sagna’s levels – with Mathieu Flamini as third choice. A new centre back or right back was the requirement, but buying neither is a pretty unnecessary risk. As with the striker situation, they can get by, but there shouldn’t be the need to do so.
The club will defend itself by saying that just because it has money, does not mean it should buy just for the sake of it. Looking at the players who actually did move, it is somewhat tough to disagree: Sagna is a better centre back than all of Mamadou Sakho (who cost Liverpool £15million), Ashley Williams (for whom Swansea wanted circa £10m), Martín Demichelis (£4million to Manchester City) and Kolo Touré (free), to name a few examples, and it is similarly difficult to find good right backs. That said, if they stay lucky with defensive injuries, as they did last year, then such issues will come up rarely, if at all. But it still should not have to have been a cause for worry if it did. The concerns in midfield are mostly solved, with the Özil and Flamini signings.
Realistically, the squad depth issues put the title at a solid ‘probably not’ at this point. But the difference between this Arsenal and so many others is that so much of their strength lies in their defence. The style of play in the season’s opening few games – the Villa horror show apart – has reflected this; they are far more contented to play more on the counter, trusting themselves on the defensive side and attacking far more directly. How nice it is to be able to say that about Arsenal once more.
The ability of the first XI rather than the whole squad would make a cup a far more likely proposition than the league, at least at the moment. But rule them out at your peril. This Arsenal will surprise people – the extent of that surprise remains to be seen.
To understand the love that exists between AC Milan, its fans and Kaká, there are few better instances to recall than the events of January 2009. As the year turned, every sports page and conversation was filled with talk about Manchester City’s bid for the Brazilian. Milan, engulfed by debts, had no option but to accept the £107million on offer. City’s wage to the player rumoured to be close to £500,000 a week.
During the weekend game that followed the reporting of City’s overtures, the fans had displayed banners reading “Kaká is priceless” and “Hands off Kaká”. On the next Wednesday, a typically cold winter evening in Milan, over 1000 Milanisti gathered outside his house in the city to implore him to stay. They got their wish; the evening ended with Kaká holding up a Milan shirt out the window, his name and number facing towards the crowd, gesturing towards his heart.
Not many players would have elicited such a forceful and affectionate reaction to rumours they were about to leave their clubs. Even fewer would have stayed. Although Milan’s desperate need to sell saw him leave for Real Madrid six months later, it was an exit filled with tears. Kaká’s sale did nothing to damage his deity status in his spiritual home. If anything, it was furthered: 15,000 season ticket holders did not renew after it.
There were similar scenes last week outside Milanello, as his re-signing was announced. The crowds were far smaller, but just like that night four and a half long years ago, it culminated in Kaká holding the red and black striped shirt towards the cheering and singing crowd. The number 22, which had been left vacant since his departure, was given straight back to him.
Many, myself included (regrettably), believed that Carlo Ancelotti’s arrival at Real Madrid would give his career with Los Blancos a new joie de vivre. As it happened, he was told that the purchases of Isco and Gareth Bale meant there was no room for him, despite Mesut Özil’s sale to Arsenal. As Real were now turning their backs, there was no doubt as to where Kaká would go.
Milan and Real Madrid had attempted to negotiate a loan for the Brazilian in January. Kaká had already agreed a significant paycut until Real demanded money that Milan did not have (read: some), and the deal collapsed. The difference this summer was that Real were willing to let him go for free. He took a cut of over 50%, from around €10million to €4million per year. He could have earned more elsewhere, but the calls from home and the chance to reignite the old romance were too much to ignore.
As previously discussed, Kaká had a rough time of it in Madrid, but he is far from broken. Since their parting in 2009, Milan themselves have also had a less-than steady time of it. Similarly for both of them, a sole league title has been unable to cover the deep-set issues. For the club, these problems stretched to a financial chasm. But, like their returned hero, the promises of greater things are upon them once more.
Milan, still as poor as Silvio Berlusconi’s case for the defence, have had to go a new way around team building: their focus has been shifted more onto youth development and cheaper, riskier imports, ranging from the youthful and/or less tested (such as Riccardo Saponara and Andrea Poli) to the more expensive, but perceived damaged goods (Kaká, Mario Balotelli).
Adriano Galliani boldly proclaimed at the summer’s start that the plan was to move the first team to a 4-3-1-2. This was, of course, the primary formation under which they achieved so much success under Carlo Ancelotti. Kaká was at its heart, mostly playing as the ‘1’, but occasionally as a second striker, in times of need. He will make up for the final third creativity they have been missing, as well as being the key to enabling this formational change. There will be no problems fitting him in with Milan’s already-established regulars, or even ingratiating him into a wildly different system – it is just a copy of the one that was built for him.
Highly warranted worries about their defence notwithstanding, they have managed to put together a very impressive side. There is a squad lacks depth (and some quality) in the defensive areas, but with Mattia De Sciglio, Stephan El Shaarawy and Mario Balotelli they have a core of fantastic young players, and lifelong Milan fans. And with them, there are the likes of captain Riccardo Montolivo, Nigel De Jong, Giampaolo Pazzini and Kaká himself, providing their own ability, with experience.
That said, the defence cannot be brushed over entirely. It was starting to look like a far stronger unit at the end of last season, but they remain inconsistent and worrying. De Jong’s presence and the systemic changes will see them better protected, and time together will hopefully have put them more and more at ease in eachothers’ company. Though I’ll believe that one when I see it.
Milan saw how reunions can go when Andriy Shevchenko came back and scored just 2 in 26 games, none of which came in the league. But with Kaká the risk is far less, and the gains are potentially far greater. Kaká is almost a human morale boost for Milan now. With austerity having been thrust upon them, Kaká must now lead a younger and weaker Milan back to the top, just as he did the great and powerful one of his first spell.
A Scudetto remains highly unlikely this season, but they will have a far greater say in proceedings than they did last term. It is easy to forget that in 2013, they lost just one in 19 – and that was against Juventus. Balotelli’s influence was quickly felt. Perhaps Kaká’s will be, too. Significant problems remain, but they are stronger than they were last season. If they can play like they did in its second half and meet some luck, their challenge will have more strength to it, to say the least. Or maybe, as was so often their way, Kaká and Milan will excel in the Champions League.
Kaká and Milan has always been the most symbiotic of relationships. They have always managed to enhance and bring the best from one other. The adoration is shared and unquestionable. At this point, they need eachother. Kaká can’t give what he did upon his arrival 8 years ago, but at 31 he is still a very special player. Milan’s young side has their figurehead. Kaká is back on his throne.