Since the initial departure of Mathieu Flamini, many Arsenal fans have wanted a specific kind of player more than any other. Not an energetic, almost purely defensive midfielder of the Frenchman’s type, nor a replacement for Thierry Henry, who had left the year before; instead, there was a wish for a return to the ‘power’ of old. What Flamini and his wonderful but all too short-lived partnership with Cesc Fàbregas (with Aliaksandr Hleb and Tomáš Rosicky flanking them) showed was that the definition of ‘midfield power’ goes beyond the 6’4" broad-shouldered, physical Adonis, with the capability to stride from his own penalty box to the opposition’s in a single bound. Instead it could come from high energy and supreme technical skill.
With Abou Diaby’s constant injuries, no such ‘all-rounder’ came to the fore. Players who are already sculpted with those qualities are both difficult to find and very expensive once found. The beautiful quartet were broken up steadily, first by Rosicky’s long-term injury, then by the departures of Flamini and Hleb. Arsène Wenger was unable to replicate their brilliance, and so went a slightly different way with it all. There was a patience required. As he himself said, if you cannot 'buy superstars', you must make them.
Alex Song eventually took on the ‘power’ but so little of that was focussed further forward until 11/12. Samir Nasri became the wide, creative dribbler. It was no cheap imitation, but anyone claiming it represented an upgrade would have to be lying, blind, or mad. The cries for ‘a Vieira’ were ever-present from many corners. They had known the success that Vieira had brought them, and they understandably wanted that back.
Vieira was a truly unique player. He was, of course tall and powerful, exceptional off the ball and even better on it, capable of turning defence into attack with a single interception and able to sprint from one end of the pitch to the other, be it 1st minute or 121st, but he was, above all, a phenomenal leader, the kind of player who would drag others up to his level. If needs were he would be vocal and authoritative, but his greatest strength was his inability to accept the concept of a lost cause on the pitch. His teams always followed his example.
Arsenal’s search for the 747-engined deep midfielder with the heart of gold and the ability to match is drawing to its close. In that, they already have all the parts, they just need to finish the assembly process. It may be considered hyperbole to attach that label to Aaron Ramsey at this stage, but to recreate the Invincibles in the same blueprint is impossible. He is becoming that figure in a very differently constructed side.
It has not, of course, been an easy few years for him since Ryan Shawcross mangled his leg back in 2010. He was made to take on the departed Fàbregas’ position - to which he was relatively unfamiliar - immediately after the ex-captain’s departure, in a total mess of a side. He was impressive but highly inconsistent until the Great Full Back Crisis of 2011-12, which had an unexpected effect on him. His limitations had been masked by easier passing options around him; the makeshift full backs now sitting almost entirely behind the halfway line took away avenues on either side. It also meant that the wingers either side were made to sit slightly deeper and the midfielders behind him slightly higher, pushing him further up into more confined space where he was even more uncomfortable.
In the middle of that came Gary Speed’s suicide. Speed had been the Wales manager at the time and the man who had appointed Ramsey as his captain. The shock loss of such a figure was impossible to brush off, yet Arsenal’s squad was so thin that there was almost no option for him but to attempt to do so.
It was his first full season after the break. The fatigue, poor form and external circumstances exacerbated one another and Tomáš Rosicky’s return pushed him out of the first eleven, for a while. Games came, mostly from the bench, until Mikel Arteta’s injury at home to Wigan, with only a few matches remaining. At this point they were yet to win a single league match that season without Arteta. The haywire partnership of Laurent Koscielny and Thomas Vermaelen needed all the protection it could get. Like Jack Wilshere after him, Alex Song’s presence was needed further forward, and he obeyed those instructions to great effect; the lack of tracking and abandonment of defending were not as needed. Ramsey was thrown overboard, while Song’s assists saved him from more savage criticism. The still-out-of-form and visibly struggling Welshman was unfortunate. Third was scraped, a new season began.
Song had been made to walk the plank, his services rendered useless therein. But rather than send Ramsey immediately into whatever position Song was supposed to be playing in his final season, the manager instead sent him to learn a few different facets of his trade out on the wings. Philippe Auclair cites a conversation with Wenger in his biography of Thierry Henry about playing central players out wide for a time:
"It’s sometimes a good idea, to deploy a player who has a future in the middle of the park on the flank. He gets used to using the ball in smaller space, as the touch line effectively divides the space that’s available to him by two; when you move the same player to the middle, he breathes more easily and can exploit space better."
The merits of this more controversial of methods can be debated, but two things cannot: it has worked many times for Wenger, and Ramsey looks much more in the middle now than he did before his time out wide. What is also difficult to dispute is that Ramsey’s time on the wing was itself extremely mixed, at best. Often its merits were overridden by its misuse. The game away at Manchester City was one where it was of use; QPR at home was not. There were some highly encouraging performances, but more somewhat demoralising ones. The wing tactic died after the Bradford game; few mourned it.
If that was all still not enough, the Chris Coleman turned up and complicated matters by stripping Ramsey of the Welsh captaincy. The Arsenal man had been vocally against Coleman’s appointment. The new manager did not have the courage of Speed’s convictions; nor his managerial talent. It was just another layer of misfortune for Ramsey, but what stood out most were his performances. Effort habitual, consistency less so.
Even when not at his best, he still worked significantly harder than almost everyone else on the pitch, whatever position asked of him. What’s more, his issues were common for younger players. Poor finishing, ponderousness on the ball, hesitant decision-making are all so normal of players in his shoes, injury regardless. That perpetual effort, clever movement and unwillingness to become peripheral in games meant he always had a lot of the ball. His positioning in and around the box has always been excellent, but for many years his finishing did not exactly go with it. His fashioning chances others would not have almost became a flaw, as his visibility made him an easier target than someone who rarely shoots or finds space in the box.
Then the change came. Whether the boss planned to move him back to deep midfield at the turn of the year, who knows, but Arteta’s injury and the total dearth of defensive midfielders saw him stationed in his position, next to Jack Wilshere against West Ham and Liverpool at home. Its initial success, coupled with Wilshere’s fantastic game as a number 10 at home to Swansea, inspired Wenger to shift to using Ramsey and Arteta in front of the defence.
What followed was more relief than surprise. The Wilshere-Arteta partnership had been the cause of many problems in the team’s balance. With Ramsey there they were instantly stronger defensively but still disjointed and lacking edge further up the pitch. The rest of the season followed that very layout. Arsenal were bulidling on virtues less synonymous with the Wenger Era than previous sides: a strong defence, and a team which identified more with grit and fight than any Arsenal side since Vieira’s days, a side starting nervously but steadily growing more and more comfortable as itself. Ramsey embodied all of that.
At long last, he was excelling, every strength visibly improving, and every weakness visibly diminshing, with each passing match. The defensive side of his game has become fantastic, and he has been growing more and more impactful in attacking moves. His positioning is as intelligent as ever, and with Arteta beside him, he has the security to trust his first instinct to attack the ball.
His transitional play and dribbling remain below Wilshere’s levels, but the improvement in both has been distinctly noticeable. Finally he appears now to have the composure to match his timing and movement around goal. The 7 goals in the last 8 are just the start.
In more defensive setups he has been more useful off the ball than on it, and vice versa when the onus lies more with Arsenal. One issue he has solved is balancing the two. Rarely has he shown himself yet to be adept at being both in the same game, but there is enough evidence on all sides that he is getting there. As said before, his transitional play and speed with the ball, although improving continuously, still have a way to go.
Two issues that have gone under the radar are his minimal use of his left foot and his lack of aerial presence. At 6’0", he could reasonably be expected to have more influence in defending and attacking set pieces, but if the rest of his game is any indication, it will come.
Overall, Ramsey is becoming a frightening player. At 22 years old, rough edges are to be expected; his remaining ones are eminently fixable, far more than the ones already smoothed. The Welshman is significantly more direct than Wilshere, but his game lacks the subtlety of his counterpart’s, as of yet. Development is needed on both sides.
He has not been a ‘post-injury’ player to Arsenal fans for some time, but to much of the wider world, it was merely the last notable thing that happened to him. The goal against Stoke and the glorious ‘shh’ celebration gave a feeling of having come full circle. He can become ‘Aaron Ramsey, brilliant footballer’ in everyone's eyes, rather than just ‘Aaron Ramsey, leg break victim’.
Every new performance shows more improvement. He has won over his detractors at home, and many on the outside. Now all that is left is to solve the solvable and maintain his form. So far we have seen this renewed Ramsey sustained for six months. It is not unrealistic to think we could be seeing it for the next 10 years. It’s a wonder what a bit of confidence can do.