Aaron Ramsey is out-of-form and, as it happens, out of the team. By that I mean he was only given a chance in his favoured central midfield role at Wolves in order to afford Tomas Rosicky a rest. At Everton and QPR, he was shunted in to an unfamiliar left-wing role in order to fulfil a defensive function – an unhappy square peg in an ill-fitting round hole. The only reason Ramsey came on last night was because of the unfortunate injury to Mikel Arteta. And in a fully fit squad, he would not have been first off the bench: both Abou Diaby and Jack Wilshere, entirely absent this season, would be ahead of him in the pecking order.
He knows he’s not playing well. You can see it in his desperation in front of goal; his desire to make a tangible contribution to the team. The manager knows it too – he doesn’t make excuses for players who don’t need them. But there are mitigating circumstances with Ramsey. His horrific injury means that this is his first full season in the Premier League. He made his first start for Arsenal post leg-break on the 19th March 2011 – barely a year ago. This season he has been involved in no less than 40 games, starting 32. The weight of responsibility has been significant: Arsene Wenger expected to retain Samir Nasri, and have Jack Wilshere available for selection. Instead, Arsenal have leaned heavily on a 21-year old, who has only recently been able to share the burden with a rejuvenated Tomas Rosicky.
In that period he himself would admit that he’s not scored enough goals, or provided enough assists. Throughout the season I’ve been quick to criticise him for being a little impetuous in his decision making, or for attempting a difficult pass when the simpler ball is a better option. However, one thing I can never question is his commitment. Despite his poor form, he’s never hid. He’s never let his head go down, or stopped trying things. He’s a player of enormous mental fortitude – he probably wouldn’t even have been able to make a top level comeback if that weren’t the case.
Last night, however, sections of the crowd and huge swathes of the global fanbase couldn’t wait to get on his back as soon as he got on the pitch. His touch was admittedly uncertain, but immediately a man sat yards from me leapt to his feet and demanded he be subbed off. In the aftermath of the game, the criticism of him ranged from the illogical (“Ramsey cost us the game”) to the obscene (death threats and encouragement to take his own life sent directly to his Twitter account).
Let’s deal with the facts first: Ramsey was not to blame for our defeat. By that point we were already two nil down, and whilst he was poor during his time on the pitch, he was no worse than many of his team-mates. Secondly, what do these so-called ‘supporters’ hope to gain from this behaviour? It’s hardly going to spur Ramsey on to improve. As I’ve stated many times, there’s no question over his commitment – he’s simply been asked to do too much this season, and has finally hit a rut of poor form. He will come again. There is not a team in the country who wouldn’t want the 21-year old captain of Wales in their squad.
Of course, part of the fans’ collective frustration is that by this point they were already baying for ‘The Ox’. After a run of starts in January and February, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has recently been used almost exclusively from the bench. The fans question the wisdom of Arsene’s selection policy, but the fine form of Theo Walcott and our impressive winning run suggests its not entirely foolish. However, as soon as Arsenal found themselves two goals down yesterday, there was a collective sense that only Oxlade-Chamberlain could save us.
Indeed, when he eventually did come on, after chants of ‘Ox Ox Ox’ from an impatient crowd, his arrival was met with the loudest roar of the night. I have to say, I wasn’t entirely comfortable with it. Encouragement is good – pressure to be the Messiah is not.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is an outstanding young player, and that has been recognised by his fellow professionals nominating him for the Young Footballer of the Year award. However, that nomination is more a recognition of his talent than his contribution this season. Look at the names alongside him – Aguero, Bale, Sturridge. They have been regular starters for their team, scoring in to the double-figures and featuring regularly at international level. Chamberlain has just five Premier League starts to his name. For all his promise, he has much to learn, and his contribution when he came on was indicative of that. He showed plenty of passion, charging at defenders and turning this way and that, but on two occasions he lost the ball and left us facing a dangerous counter-attack when a simple pass was on. He will learn, because he is good enough, and intelligent enough. But the level of expectation around this boy is becoming absurd.
He is not Messi. He is not Ronaldo. I daren’t say he won’t ever reach that level – I would never set limitations on anybody’s talent – I’ve seen improvements in players that defy belief. But he’s a long way from that yet, and Arsenal fans need to show patience with his development, and measure their expectations accordingly.
I would certainly have him ahead of Gervinho in the pecking order, but once Arsene had made the call to introduce the Ivorian, surely the most sensible way to use the remaining substitute was to deploy a second striker in Marouane Chamakh? I was as baffled by Arsene’s decision as I was by the fans’ jubilant reaction.
It’s good to back youngsters. But here’s my worry: when Aaron Ramsey was 18 years old, I’d say his potential was roughly equivalent to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s now. People were talking about him as a future Arsenal captain, a ‘Steven Gerrard figure’ and part of an exciting new generation of British talent. Ramsey is a lesson that the hype and expectation around a young starlet can quickly turn to frustration – just ask Theo Walcott, who was pilloried last night for a performance that was nullified more by Wigan’s outstanding tactics than any failings on Theo’s part.
It is my firm belief that Aaron Ramsey and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will become massive players for Arsenal Football Club. What they both need from the fans is time, patience, support, and a bit of perspective. Let’s give them that.