It’s easy to blame injuries for Arsenal’s demise in the title race this season, and even easier to just blame the absence of one player for the major stumbles the Gunners have taken in the second half of the campaign. I don’t want to be so simplistic about what’s happened to Arsenal’s season, but on seeing the performance of Aaron Ramsey at Hull on Sunday, it’s difficult to ignore the huge impact his injury had.
Unfortunately, asking the ‘what if?’ question doesn’t hide the thumping defeats suffered at Liverpool and Chelsea, but Arsenal fans should just rejoice that the Welshman is back and looking like he’s never been away. His first league start since Boxing Day also included a first appearance for Mesut Ozil since his hamstring injury picked up away to Bayern Munich, and the pair provided Arsenal with a freshness and sharpness in attack that has been horribly absent during recent troubles.
Ramsey has rightly grabbed the headlines for this contribution to all three goals in the comfortable 3-0 win, but the match was a reminder of the way Ozil glues this Arsenal team together going forward. At Hull, Ozil made himself available to take passes, and his clever movement made the space for others to burst into and cause problems. For the first goal, his run wide made space for Cazorla and Ramsey to move into the centre, before the German played a perfect ball inside to create the opportunity. Ozil then instigated the breakaway for the excellent second goal before half time. After his time out with injury, Ozil was lively, should have been awarded a penalty and got a valuable hour under his belt. Having such a comfortable lead early in the second half was ideal for Arsene Wenger as he could substitute his record signing and keep him fresh for the final four games.
Ozil’s own performance was also helped by having Aaron Ramsey ready to charge through the midfield to offer options in the final third. For someone that has played so little football since Christmas, the Welshman’s performance really was remarkable.
It was almost like a confirmation that Ramsey really was as good as we remember him from the start of the season. I was slightly fearful that his run of form was just that, and not something that he could match again. His performance on Sunday suggested otherwise. Ramsey is arguably the most complete midfielder in the league with his defensive and attacking contributions.
Whilst the Welsh Messi was central to everything good that Arsenal did in the game, after the Gunners hauled themselves over the line against Wigan in the FA Cup semi-final, the whole team is looking more confident. Lukas Podolski was one of the poorest performers at Wembley, and was quoted in the media as being unhappy at his substitution in that game. In fairness to the German, he has responded brilliantly with four goals in two games since and made it very difficult for Arsene Wenger to drop him for the rest of the season.
In many ways, it was a classic Podolski performance at Hull. He didn’t appear to be heavily involved in the game, but when the chances dropped to him near the box, his finishing was brutally clinical. His first strike in particular, finishing off the flowing counter-attack, was a reminder of the ridiculous power he has. When playing with Ramsey, Ozil and Cazorla, there is less pressure on Podolski to be more involved around the pitch, helping the balance of the team as the German is undoubtedly most dangerous when he can just sniff chances near the box or the flank with that left hammer.
Even though the win was very comfortable during the second half, there were some worrying moments in the first half, but the Arsenal defence did well, with Wojciech Szczesny especially excelling. Serious kudos too to Mikel Arteta, whose disciplined performance enabled the front five to cause havoc in front of him, and for someone who takes some serious pride in his appearance, to do so after brutally having a tooth knocked out was impressive stuff.
For the media, the fact the two sides will meet in the FA Cup final made a good narrative, but in reality Arsenal will have a different game with Hull at Wembley in May. Arsenal know the league situation of having to get late-season wins to secure European football very well. The added pressure of a cup final will add a huge extra dimension to the fixture, although going into it with two league wins over Hull should give the Gunners some confidence before the showpiece game.
However, before we walk down Wembley Way again, there is important league business to attend to. Everton won’t go away in the pursuit of the Champions League, so the match at Hull could have brought more nerves after a week that just about brought two Arsenal wins, albeit coming from losing situations. The return of Ozil, and particularly Ramsey, calmed all those nerves as the team played with the confidence and security that was evident in the earlier months of the season. It made such a difference to really be able to enjoy an Arsenal performance, especially at a time in the season when pressure is meant to be increased.