You can tell a lot about an Arsenal fan by their opinion of Aaron Ramsey. Some have complained that, for all his talent and stunning moments, he was inconsistent, selfish and rarely lived up to his potential.
For others, he is a club legend who scored winning goals in two FA Cup finals, tirelessly endeavoured to blend industry with artistry, and more of an ‘Arsenal man’ than any other player of the Emirates era.
With his move to Juventus on the verge of being confirmed, it’s time to assess his 10 years at the club and try to make sense of his bewildering exit. Who is the real Aaron Ramsey and what are Arsenal losing by letting him go?
Down and up
In 2008, Ramsey joined the Gunners as a hotly-tipped 17-year-old. He had turned down an approach from Old Trafford. Arsene Wenger described his new signing as “a player with a fantastic engine, good build, good technique and good vision” and “an offence-minded Roy Keane”. It all seemed great – but two years into the new boy’s Gunners tenure, a horror tackle from Stoke’s Ryan Shawcross left him with a double fracture in his right leg.
It was one of those wince-and-look-away moments. There was talk that the Welshman’s career was over. His return, which came nine months later, was cheered as “heroic” by his team-mates.
And yet it’s easy to forget how much he struggled to win over the fans. It was felt that he took too many touches and slowed down the game, and it hardly helped when Wenger put him out wide for a while. To his credit, he never complained.
Instead, Ramsey worked hard, found his feet again and then hit his Arsenal peak: the 2013/14 season. Ramsey formed an astral understanding with Olivier Giroud and the newly-arrived Mesut Ozil, shrewdly timing his runs into the box and netting many of the goals that fired his team to the top of the table. He won over the fans – some very much so.
The league challenge faltered when Ramsey missed three months due to a thigh strain, but he capped his return by scoring the winner against Hull in the 2014 FA Cup Final, ending Arsenal’s nine-year trophy drought. Steven Gerrard described him as “the best attacking midfielder in the Premier League”. Other pundits described him as the best in Europe on his day.
In subsequent campaigns he continued to deliver, but there was sometimes a feeling that the hype around his dramatic cup winner had gone to his head. The Welshman seemed more inclined than ever to attempt unnecessary ‘Hollywood’ flicks and selfish tricks, inducing groans of frustration when his elaborations didn’t come off.
But that he worked so hard was often overlooked, and in fairness to Ramsey, the arrival of Alexis Sanchez in summer 2014 hardly helped his attacking endeavours. The team spirit and slick play that he thrived on in 2013/14 vanished with the arrival of the disruptive Chilean. Yet he still managed moments of magnificence, including a 30-yard cracker at Galatasaray, and a sweet left-footed volley in Stoke.
His next period of sustained excellence actually came on the international stage. Handed a freer, more advanced role, Ramsey was one of Euro 2016’s greatest players. Under Chris Coleman, he finally showed the sort of domineering play that had long been hoped of him.
The omens looked good for Ramsey when Unai Emery arrived and swiftly announced that it was important he stayed. The Spaniard has form with improving midfielders – he worked wonders with Ivan Rakitic at Sevilla, and coaxed excellence out of the mercurial Ever Banega too. There was hope that Ramsey, a grafter who would willingly close down in Emery’s eye, might thrive under the new style. Another factor in his favour seemed to be the movement he offers in a team that has become strangely static.
But Emery had other ideas. Rather than seeing Ramsey as a core midfielder, he viewed him in a more advanced bracket alongside Ozil, Alex Iwobi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. His playing time has been restricted. A new contract was offered and then withdrawn.
Whether the issue is a footballing one, or whether Ramsey has simply suffered the fallout from Ivan Gazidis’s unforgivable observance of star players being allowed to run down their contracts, remains unclear. But certainly, a lot of Emery’s decisions are baffling at this stage.
For Arsenal fans, to lose such a talented player for nothing is horrendously disappointing. Players like Ramsey don’t grow on trees – certainly not the kind that the club can currently afford to pluck from, anyway.
Something is being lost off the pitch, too. This is not Samir Nasri sulking off to Manchester City, or Cesc Fabregas chasing his childhood dream by returning to Barcelona. Ramsey is a significant talent who wanted to stay in north London. He has been at the club for 10 years, and understands Arsenal like few employees on or off the pitch do any more. It’s impossible to put a price on that as the club’s traditions and ties with the past are abandoned one by one.
Ramsey’s Arsenal career should be summed up in its context: the tricky Emirates era in which tight purse-strings, a polarising boss and executive mismanagement combined to clip the team’s wings. As they moved stadiums, the Gunners were transformed from a side competing for titles and reaching a Champions League final, to one aiming for the consistency of fourth place.
In such an era, arguably no player made a more positive impact than Ramsey – those cup winners alone guarantee him a prominent place in the club’s history books. But what comes next in north London is less certain.