Aaron Ramsey finding his place, living up to his full potential for Arsenal
In early 2009, when the young Aaron Ramsey was entering first team consideration at Arsenal with impressive swiftness and regularity, a former coach at Cardiff City - the man who had advised the then 17-year-old to choose north London as his destination the previous summer - could not help but be enthused about his former charge.
"I have been 20 years away from the Arsenal and I never really knocked on the door to recommend someone," said Terry Burton, now reserves coach at Arsenal but then Cardiff assistant manager. "But I did with Aaron. That's how impressive his qualities are." Ramsey, he said, "comes to life" on a football pitch. "It is not very often that young players move up and get straight into the team. He did that at Cardiff and again with Arsenal. He'll be thinking the game is easy."
There will be few retrospectives of Ramsey's career that make use of the word easy. A little over a year after Burton's proud words were spoken, the Arsenal midfielder's leg was broken in two places under the force of a tackle by the Stoke City defender Ryan Shawcross. The image of Ramsey laid out on the turf, his ankle dangling at a queasy angle, his teammates standing aghast around him, is an abiding one. Before the start of this season, more than three years on, it had looked like being the defining one for Ramsey.
Ramsey had clubs fighting over him from the start: when he signed for his local club, Cardiff, at the age of eight, Newcastle United (not to mention the rugby league club St Helens) were also interested. Within a couple of months of making his debut for Cardiff (coming on in the 89th minute against Hull in April 2007), he had attracted £1M bids from at least two Premier League clubs. When he did sign for Arsenal in the summer of 2008, he had also spoken to Everton and Manchester United, the club he grew up supporting.
The midfielder was more than quarry for Arsene Wenger, however. The Arsenal manager was convinced (not only by conversations with Burton) of Ramsey's suitability to the Arsenal midfield. His opinion of the new arrival was honest -- "He has to improve the defensive part of his game" -- but appreciative. "He is still only 17," Wenger said at the time, "but has already shown that he is a very intelligent and mature player with great quality." Ramsey, too, was sure of the fit: "Arsenal are a club which always gives young players an opportunity at the highest level."
Ramsey was immediately a first pick for cup competitions and within half a season was steadily notching up substitute appearances in the Premier League (Wenger has a reputation for throwing young players in, of course, but just for comparison, Theo Walcott waited more than six months for his first start after signing for Arsenal - his England debut came sooner). By the time Ramsey arrived at the Britannia Stadium on that fateful day late in February 2010, he was already on the cover of the latest issue of the official Arsenal magazine.
"Face of the future," the cover read, alongside a picture of Ramsey holding the reader in a purposeful gaze. "Aaron's Arsenal ascent continues." Inside, Wenger was full of praise. "He's an all-round player, with a fantastic ability to cover distances. He has great pace, a good eye for the final ball and he's a good finisher." The manager's description of Ramsey as "an offense-minded Roy Keane" was one that would go on to be repeated in numerous profiles.
Ramsey was back in training barely more than half a year after breaking two bones in his lower right leg, making an appearance for the reserves after nine months and quickly making competitive first team appearances for Nottingham Forest and Cardiff, where he made brief loan visits. He finished the 2010-11 season playing -- and scoring -- for Arsenal in the Premier League. At that point Arsenal fans were just glad to see him in the shirt again.
He has endured a difficult couple of seasons since then, though. The constant counting of the years passed since Arsenal last won a trophy had well and truly begun, and the tolerance of a vocal group of supporters for players groping about for their best form was minimal, even if those players were recovering from dreadful injury, or being played out of position.
With Samir Nasri sold to Manchester City and Cesc Fabregas gone to Barcelona, Ramsey was often thrust into a much more advanced midfield role. Last season also saw him played out wide while Mikel Arteta ran things from the deep-lying spot Ramsey is really best suited to. On any given day, he could be heckled for being too slow, rushing things, passing backwards, passing badly, or buggering things up in the final third. There was howling when Wenger, no stranger to the ire of the club's own fans, gave Ramsey a new five-year deal in December last year.
The first flickerings of the old Ramsey -- or rather, the Ramsey that was promised before injury struck -- appeared at the London Olympics, when Ramsey seemed to grow, minute by minute, into the anchor role. Against Uruguay, in particular, it was Ramsey's movement and, yes, vision that stood out. In 2013, he looked increasingly to be that player, admitting that he was "getting stuck in a lot more" as well as fine-tuning his football brain. In pre-season, it was wired and ready to go. You do not need me to tell you that he has started the season with six goals in seven appearances for Arsenal, even if another, for Wales against Macedonia, might have passed you by.
In a team featuring Mesut Ozil, Theo Walcott, and Mathieu Flamini, Ramsey is not obliged to any one task but can play his natural box-to-box game. Besides the goals (a couple of which have been genuinely delicious volleys), his performances in recent weeks can be filed under Covered Every Blade of Grass. With or without possession, Ramsey has been reliably on the ball.
"He was resistant to go into the fights for a long, long time, but now he's over it," Wenger said this week, when he's had a chance to once again laud the midfielder. "He lost confidence and sometimes, if you give the players a little rest, it can rebuild their confidence. They can think about their game and come back stronger and that's what happened to him." Ramsey himself has said that he is only now fully recovered from the trauma of his injury.
As if somehow the fixture list expected Ramsey to be headline news at this stage of the season, it has thrown Arsenal and Stoke together again this weekend, when Stoke and Shawcross visit the Emirates unbeaten, like Arsenal, since the first day of the campaign. It is a testament to his performances this year that one might expect this to be the last of such meetings to be prefaced by the tale of the breaking and remaking of Aaron Ramsey.