Less than a month before the Wizard of Ozil waved his magic wand at the Stadium of Light to help Arsenal go top of the table, the mood among Gunners fans was entirely different.
Shortly after Aston Villa sucker-punched them to an opening-day defeat at the Emirates, Arsenal’s supporters were in hostile form. Our FanZone show played host to a stream of fed-up Gooners venting their anger at the manager, the club’s board of directors and one player in particular.
“Aaron Ramsey is just not good enough to be an Arsenal player,” ranted a ‘Skyper’ from Africa. “He should never play for us again.”
The comment stuck in my mind because of its vitriol and also because it was just the latest in a long line of anti-Ramsey rants to finds its way into the public domain. From social media to fans’ websites to chants at the games, he had come in for fierce criticism. Ramsey was derided for being too conservative in his passing and compared unfavourably to the likes of Scott Parker and even Francis Coquelin. The talk-sports.net website set up an “Aaron Ramsey Sucks” forum. A blog published in July 2012 began with the words, “He’s the worst player I’ve ever seen play for a top four club. He can’t run, he can’t shoot, he can’t dribble, he can’t pass, he can’t head...” and went on along similar lines.
Well, that same player scored twice against Sunderland this weekend to take his tally for the season to six goals in eight games for club and country. Fans outside the Stadium of Light chanted “Better than Bale” at the Welshman and his delighted manager Arsene Wenger declared that the 22-year-old has “improved dramatically” as a player in the last year.
“His second goal was really special because of the movement he produced,” said pundit Alan Curbishley. “Much has been made of Christian Eriksen’s pass and Gylfi Sigurdsson’s finish for Tottenham on Saturday but that Ramsey goal was every bit as special.”
So, how to explain this dramatic transformation? Of course this apparent contradiction in fans’ opinions could be seen as just an extreme demonstration of their fickle nature but it seems there is actually more to the strange case of Aaron Ramsey than that.
First of all, he is playing as well as any midfielder in the league right now. Against Sunderland, Ramsey didn’t just score the two goals. He completed seven tackles, had 111 touches of the ball, made 88 passes (at a superb 92 per cent completion rate) and effectively continued the form he has shown all season.
Ramsey actually produced a strong showing in that opening defeat to Villa: he had more touches and made more passes than anyone on the pitch. He then produced three goals and an assist over two legs of the Champions league play-off with Fenerbahce. Domestically, he again led his team statistically against Fulham before producing a strong defensive midfield performance against Spurs in the North London derby win. Throw in a goal for his country against Macedonia and you have a stunning start to the season.
In truth, Ramsey has actually just carried on the form he showed at the end of last season when he played a pivotal role in Arsenal’s run of form that brought eight wins in their last 10 games. The Gunners conceded just five goals in that time with Ramsey operating more as a defensive midfielder. Now, though, with Mathieu Flamini offering the defensive shield, Ramsey has taken on the box-to-box midfielder role and is, dare we say, outperforming the darling of English football, Jack Wilshere.
“Aaron Ramsey was a convenient scapegoat for Arsenal fans last year,” said Curbishley. “They were always going to have a go at him and Wenger rather than, say, Wilshere. It was just easier to hammer Ramsey.
“There is more to it than that because he actually did seem to lose his form and perhaps his confidence after that broken leg.”
The broken leg, remember, came back in February 2010 at Stoke. Defender Ryan Shawcross broke the young Welshman’s leg in two places and literally stopped a promising career in its tracks.
Aaron Ramsey had become Cardiff City’s youngest player at 16 years and 124 days and first made a name for himself with a series of impressive FA Cup performances as well as showings for the Welsh Under-21s. He then moved to Arsenal for £5 million in 2008 after Everton and Manchester United had reportedly shown interest in him.
Wenger took his time about giving Ramsey serious first-team action but signed the youngster to a new long-term deal and then gradually increased his first-team exposure in late 2009 and early 2010. By the time Ramsey made the fateful trip to Stoke’s Britannia Stadium, he had already forced his way into the starting XI and performed well in a comfortable victory over Sunderland the previous week.
Then, the Shawcross challenge that left Ramsey’s foot hanging at a grotesque angle and left seasoned professionals who were on the pitch that day physically sick at the sight of it.
When Ramsey finally returned to football, many feared that although the physical wound had healed and the bones mended, the psychological scars might inhibit him, especially in contact situations. As it turned out, he seemed happy enough to tackle but his all-round game began to suffer even after Wales manager Chris Coleman made him captain of the national team in an apparent attempt to further boost his confidence. All to no avail.
“Sometimes you just hit the wall,” concluded Curbishley. “Sometimes you work so hard on rehab and recovery after an injury like that and then you come back in good physical shape, ready to play, only to discover you’ve got nothing left. Maybe it was more mental than physical but Ramsey really seemed to have hit the wall.”
Fortunately, that particular wall left no obvious scars -- psychologically or physiologically. This unassuming, shy young man has found his form again and it’s fair to say that Aaron Ramsey’s redemption is the most heart-warming story of the Barclays Premier League season so far.