Confidence and belief can be used to explain too much in sport, but the case of Aaron Ramsey does make you think. Rarely has one footballer been transformed so much, so quickly, seemingly just through a change in mind-set.
Nearly three months into the season, it is very safe to say Ramsey has been the finest midfielder in the country, ahead of his brilliant team-mates and all Manchester City's world-class stars. Eleven goals in all competitions is an acceptable season's return, but from 16 performances – no one has played more for Arsenal than him – it looks like the start of something special.
Ramsey has found his voice as a footballer this season in a way that many feared he would not. He has become a dynamic, dangerous, relentless attacking midfielder, not shackled to any position or role but able to burst forward to hurt teams, smelling out space and with a remarkable knack of appearing in the area where he can do maximum damage.
In terms of the sharpness of his instincts and his ability to foresee the play, Ramsey reminds you of a younger Frank Lampard. His goal on Wednesday night, his most important yet for Arsenal, as they stormed the Westfalenstadion, was the best example to date.
Olivier Giroud had not had the easiest evening but when Mesut Özil clipped the ball over from the right, he won the header. And it was Ramsey – nominally holding alongside Mikel Arteta – who burst forward to nod the ball into the Dortmund net.
Simply being there like that – as seen in his goal at Marseille's Stade Vélodrome as Arsenal started their Champions League campaign, or as he tapped Arsenal into the lead against Stoke – is a sign of a player on form, trusting his instincts, believing in his gambles, sensing that the game would break his way.
It was a very different goal, and his wonderful dipping strike against Liverpool had a similar feel, as he took on a technically difficult skill with no fear that it might go wrong. Or against Norwich City in the 4-1 rout at the Emirates when he took his time to trick his way past two defenders before shooting, always believing in his own ability to get the job done.
Ramsey is almost unrecognisable from the player of the last few years, the player whose leg had long healed after being broken at the Britannia Stadium but whose mental scars still seemed to trouble him. Quite understandably, Ramsey did not look entirely comfortable on the pitch and even Arsène Wenger – his greatest defender, the man whose unending trust is now being heavily rewarded – said that last year he "had a little resistance to go into the fights for a long, long time, but now he is over it.
"He has also gained a lot of physical power in the last year," added Wenger recently, "no longer struggling in challenges and duels but brushing opponents off. It's a great feeling for a midfielder to do that."
Perhaps it should not have been too much of a surprise. Ramsey, before Arsenal signed him from Cardiff City, might even have become a rugby league player. St Helens tried to sign him when he was 15, having seen him impress during a game for his school, Ysgol Gyfun Cwm Rhymni in the Rhymney Valley. By then he was already at Cardiff City, and knew that football was for him.
Ramsey had only played close to one full season for Cardiff when, at the age of 17, Arsenal signed him. It takes a lot for a teenager to turn down Manchester United but Ramsey did, convinced by the individual faith of Wenger in his talent. That trust, along with Ramsey's own commitment, has been one of the most important forces in realising his talent. It has had to sustain Ramsey through some dreadfully difficult times when the youngster could have been forgiven for wondering if he would ever become the player Wenger thought he might.
The long way back was not always simple. During 2010-11, the season of his return, there were brief loan spells at Nottingham Forest and Cardiff and the following year, back at Arsenal, he struggled to rediscover his rhythm; at times he looked over-used, as he suffered from the absences of Jack Wilshere and Abou Diaby, and at others he looked misused, tracking up and down the right wing, unable to show his best skills.
Last season was not much better, as Ramsey still looked slightly lost on the pitch, more callow than experienced additions such as Arteta and Santi Cazorla, and not particularly popular with large sections of the Arsenal support. "He was hesitant sometimes, and perhaps the crowd was impatient with him," said Wenger.
But the manager's decision to trust Ramsey with a new deal last December and, more importantly, a central midfield role in January, started to change things. Feeling the resilient faith in him, Ramsey could play his natural game, and was largely picked ahead of Wilshere – himself working his way back from long-term absence – in Arsenal's crucial run-in to fourth place.
Being an important part of a successful side provided Ramsey with more confidence than words ever could and this season he has been brilliant, playing the best football of his career. "He has a great spirit and he has an obsession," said Wenger, who knows him better than anyone. "He wants always to be better."Reuse content