There is a 208-page-long thread on a popular Arsenal fan forum titled, "The Highs and Lows of Aaron Ramsey". In many ways, the title is apt for Ramsey’s football career thus far. It's easy to forget that the 25-year-old's career is nearly a decade old, given his youthful exuberance, supplemented by an earnest naivete.
He inspires delight and derision in equal measure from his own fans, a lot of which stems from his attitude on the pitch of always wanting to be in the thick of the action. At no point does Ramsey hide and shy away from the ball. He’s always there, chasing, harrying, busting a lung, Hollywood-passing, and valiantly attempting the outrageous. This high risk, high reward game makes him superbly effective when things are going his way, but equally impotent and frustrating when they are not.
Aaron James Ramsey was all of 16 years and 124 days when he made his first-team debut for his boyhood club, Cardiff City. A move to Arsenal at 18 was testament to his potential, with Manchester United and Alex Ferguson expressing a genuine interest as well. Eight years on from that move, Ramsey faces uncertainty at club level, and receives justified praise at the national level.
A talisman for Wales
He is a key member of this history-making Wales national team, which qualified for their first international tournament in 58 years by comfortably making it to the Euro 2016 in France. From a Fifa rank of 117 in 2011, Wales were at one point in 2015 ranked No 10 in the world, an astonishing rise.
They carried on their stellar run in the tournament, topping a group that also contained England, Slovakia and Russia. Ramsey, along with Gareth Bale, has been pivotal to their success. A solid performance against Slovakia saw him round it off with a match-winning assist for a Hal Robson-Kanu goal. An unspectacular, but controlled, showing against England was followed by a Man-of-the-Match performance against Russia, where he grabbed a goal and another assist.
With Wales, Ramsey is emboldened with the freedom and creative liberty that the No 10 role brings. At various points against opponents in the group stage, Ramsey was to be found starting attacks down the right or left flank, working his way up the center, and tirelessly pressing and hounding the opposition. The typical Ramsey irritants remain: poor passing choices, unnecessary tricks and flicks, surprisingly poor spatial awareness. However, these are offset to an extent by his willingness to recover quickly and atone for his error.
Indeed, Ramsey was Wales’s youngest ever national team captain, with the late Gary Speed giving him the role at the age of 20 years and 90 days. However, this move was to be short-lived, as Speed’s successor Chris Coleman handed the armband to Ashley Williams 18 months later. Ramsey’s period as captain coincided with a poor run of form at the club level, as he struggled to hold on to a first-team spot. He was nowhere near mature or capable enough then to control the midfield area, and it reflected in his performances for the national team. Coleman’s decision freed him of an unnecessary responsibility and his coach gave him the confidence required to start performing against top opposition at that level.
Jekyll and Hyde for Arsenal
At Arsenal, Ramsey has had a Jekyll and Hyde-ish eight seasons: seemingly a world beater for a season and reverting to familiar indecision and mediocrity the next. Much of this is to do with positional uncertainty and that scourge of many a talented footballer – injury setback.
A horror leg break at the age of 20 posed a huge question mark on his future, but Ramsey made rapid strides to return to first team reckoning and banish the demons of what had been a terrible ordeal. The fortitude and gumption required to recover physically and mentally from that night in Stoke is nothing short of phenomenal and perhaps not always fully appreciated.
The 2013-'14 season saw an absolute star turn from Ramsey, as he scored an incredible 15 goals before Christmas, putting Arsenal firmly in pole position for the title race. A thigh muscle tear on Boxing Day saw him sidelined for three months and Arsenal went from title challengers to fighting for fourth place yet again. Ramsey, however, ensured the first piece of silverware in nine seasons, as he scored the winner in the FA Cup final in extra time.
He’s by and large failed to really kick on from that wondrous season, one in which he was named Arsenal’s Player of the Season, and was rated the best attacking midfielder in the Premier League by Steven Gerrard no less. Numerous muscular injuries, particularly his hamstrings, have set him back just when he was getting a good run of games going. Fans have repeatedly expressed their frustration at him slowing down the play, picking the wrong passing and shooting options, and generally not being in sync with his illustrious teammates.
Positional uncertainty and the way ahead
Arsene Wenger has employed Ramsey across the width of midfield, highlighting his utility and commitment, but perhaps to his detriment. He is defensively more reliable on the wings, but severely limited going forward.
Playing him at the base of midfield with a defensively minded partner has seen mixed results, with Ramsey’s game again not best suited for wriggling out of tight spaces or building the play from the back. His qualities of finishing, shooting, and making excellent runs are best served on the receiving end at the final third of the pitch.
He might count Graham Kavanagh, Steven Gerrard and Zinedine Zidane among the players he admires, but Ramsey’s qualities are similar to Frank Lampard, the former Chelsea midfielder.
With Granit Xhaka coming into the Arsenal team and Mesut Ozil occupying the No 10 position, Ramsey’s first-team future at his favoured position looks uncertain yet again. As Wales move into the knockout stages of a fairytale-like Euro 2016, it would be the least of his concerns at the moment, but something that he would keep in mind should there be interest from other big clubs. At 25, Aaron Ramsey could finally be ready to be the player he has long promised to be. It just might not be at Arsenal.