Ramsey, Sigurdsson show their quality
The opening day of the 2014-15 Premier League season was bookended by two Welsh successes. First, Swansea provided a shock win at Manchester United, and then Wales captain Aaron Ramsey scored a last-minute winner to hand Arsenal a 2-1 victory over Crystal Palace.
It's been a while since Wales has been so prominent on the football map. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s there was Ryan Giggs and little more, while Swansea and Cardiff struggled lower down England's football pyramid. Last season, however, saw two Welsh clubs in the top flight for the first time ever, while the two best British performers across Europe were both Welsh: Ramsey and Gareth Bale.
Swansea's hero on Saturday wasn't a Welshman -- Ashley Williams and Neil Taylor were the only Welsh players on show -- but instead someone returning to Wales after a couple of seasons away. Gylfi Sigurdsson's transfer to Swansea after a successful loan spell in the second half of 2011-12 went slightly under the radar, but it already seems certain to be a surefire success. Sigurdsson simply feels at home in this Swansea side, a perfect number ten at the head of a technical, patient midfield trio.
Much has happened at Swansea since his previous spell at the club during the final days of Brendan Rodgers -- Michael Laudrup has come and gone, Swansea won the Capital One Cup and even played in Europe for the first time. But the permanent appointment of Garry Monk means that the Swans are continuing with the philosophy that took them to the top flight in the first place and then ensured their comfortable survival. Sigurdsson has slotted back in perfectly.
The Icelandic midfielder's impressive display wasn't even his first at Old Trafford. He played excellently in this fixture during his first spell at Swansea, prompting rumours that Sir Alex Ferguson was set to turn to him as a solution to his problems in midfield. He instead joined Spurs, where he played as a substitute in Tottenham's 3-2 victory over United the next season -- he seems to relish playing at the Premier League's biggest ground.
Sigurdsson had a mixed experience at Tottenham. At times he frustrated because his passing was sloppy when used centrally, and he seemed better when deployed wide, charging forward to offer a goal threat, somewhat in the mould of ex-Arsenal winger Freddie Ljungberg. He's a slightly peculiar player in the sense that he isn't overwhelmingly technical, at least in the context of Tottenham and Swansea's respective midfields. He's more direct, good at running with the ball and offering a goal threat from midfield; at Swansea he offers something different rather than forming a natural part of their midfield passing machine.
In north London, meanwhile, it's tempting to say something similar about Ramsey. His development into Arsenal's most important player has been quite remarkable; there's been a huge transformation in his game both in terms of style and substance. The surprising aspect isn't that he's become a great player -- he'd always showed great promise -- but the fact he's become this type of great player.
In his early days at Arsenal, Ramsey appeared to be a quiet, intelligent user of the ball but not a particularly decisive player. He received possession, passed the ball methodically and then moved into a position where he could do the same again. He kept the play flowing but wasn't particularly direct -- certainly not in comparison to Jack Wilshere, who was always receiving the ball on the half-turn and driving at the opposition defence.
But Ramsey suddenly became a consistent goal-scoring midfielder. Like both Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri before him, once Ramsey started scoring his game took on a different tilt -- just as Fabregas was initially considered a deep-lying playmaker but became a consistent goal-scoring midfielder later on, Ramsey has moved higher up the pitch. Used alongside Mikel Arteta in a 4-2-3-1 last season, the delayed return of Mesut Ozil has allowed the Welshman to move higher up the pitch into a more advanced position.
His statistics from Saturday's victory over Crystal Palace were interesting. Despite his more advanced role, often playing in a zone Palace were looking to guard keenly, he attempted more passes than any other Arsenal player -- usually the job of a much deeper midfielder. Simultaneously, he also attempted the most shots, and the joint-most tackles for an Arsenal player alongside Mathieu Debuchy. He's truly become an all-round midfielder -- a tackler, a passer and a goal scorer -- rather than simply changing his game from one thing to another.
In the end, Ramsey's late winner summed up the fact that he also provides the decisive moments. It was a true poacher's strike -- again, not something he would have done 18 months ago -- but it also came at the end of a contest where Ramsey didn't think he played particularly well.
"I didn't have the best of games today, I'd be the first to admit that," he said afterward. "But I kept on trying to get in the right areas, and in the 93rd minute it went in." If winning games without playing well is the sign of a good team, the same must go for an individual player, too.
Perhaps a crucial common theme between Sigurdsson and Ramsey, meanwhile, was that they looked fresh. Both are among the relatively few top-drawer Premier League players who weren't at the World Cup and therefore had the whole summer to get themselves in shape for the opening day of the season. Both hit the ground running, and look set to be star performers throughout 2014-15.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.