Arsenal's Premier League title tilt could hinge on Aaron Ramsey fitness
If Arsenal's Premier League turnaround against Leicester City hinged on one moment, it might well have been an immaculate Aaron Ramsey first touch.
At that point, Leicester appeared to be heading for an unlikely 3-2 victory. However, when Granit Xhaka's pass found the Welshman at the far post, he showed exquisite technique to bring the ball under control before firing expertly beyond Kasper Schmeichel. Ramsey's brilliance turned the tide, and from that point on Arsenal's victory felt inevitable. If the Gunners are to mount a successful 2017-18 campaign, they'll need more emphatic interventions from their gifted midfielder.
Ramsey, of course, did not start Arsenal's first competitive fixture of the season. That's become a worrying trend for a player whose impact has been severely restricted by a litany of muscular injuries. After starring at Euro 2016, he was expected to be a key player for Arsenal last season. However, a series of injury setbacks repeatedly robbed Arsene Wenger of the man earmarked to be his first-choice midfielder.
This summer, he has managed to play a relatively full part in preseason. A minor injury on the eve of the campaign prevented him from taking a starting berth, but judging by his cameo from the bench he is as sharp as he has been for some time.
At his best, Ramsey is capable of providing Arsenal with some crucial cutting-edge. His most impressive spells with the club have been punctuated by regular lung-bursting sprints into the box to finish off flowing moves. At times he's shown the potential to be Arsenal's answer to Frank Lampard or Steven Gerrard.
Unfortunately, it hasn't happened often enough. For a player regarded as a goalscoring midfielder, Ramsey's finishing has been somewhat wayward for the past couple of seasons. While his basic shooting technique is good, composure is an issue. Ramsey's record is infamously streaky -- when he has a couple of goals under his belt, he suddenly appears cooler in goalscoring situations. When his confidence dips, he tends to opt for power rather than accuracy, which can produce some spectacularly wild results.
However, Ramsey's predatory instincts appear to be returning. He has now scored on his last three competitive outings for Arsenal: he bent home a spectacular strike on the final day of the 2016-17 Premier League season, before following up with the winning goal in the FA Cup Final. Returning as a substitute after the summer break, it took him just 16 minutes to open his account for the new campaign.
Ramsey has been one of the major beneficiaries of Arsenal's switch to a 3-4-2-1 system. He's at his best when given license to roam forward, and the security of an extra central defender affords him the chance to do that.
Fitness is also a huge factor. Ramsey's game is based on his extraordinary stamina. However, having been burnt by multiple set-backs in the past, it takes him some time to regain confidence in his body. A run of games is required before he really begins to push his physical potential to the limit. When he does, there are few that can match him.
Many Arsenal fans are crying out for the club to add a central midfielder this summer. The extended absence of Santi Cazorla has created concern over the quality and balance of Arsenal's midfield. However, Wenger is seemingly hesitating -- presumably due to the burgeoning partnership between Ramsey and Xhaka.
That pairing only really began to gel once Arsenal adopted their new formation in the spring. Neither player is a natural defender, and they needed the platform of a three-man defence in order to flourish. They've since gone from strength to strength, and Wenger may well feel he does not want to disrupt that developing dynamic with a new addition.
That places huge weight on Ramsey's availability. Wenger's best teams have always had a physically dominant and technically gifted midfield partnership at their core -- think Patrick Vieira alongside Emmanuel Petit, or later Gilberto Silva. If Ramsey and Xhaka are to follow in those illustrious footsteps, it's of paramount importance the Welshman stays fit for the majority of 2017-18.
James McNicholas is one of ESPN FC's Arsenal bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @gunnerblog.