Aaron Ramsey has played his last game for Arsenal, with his hamstring injury ruling him out for the rest of the season. Nick Wright examines his legacy, wonders what might have been without the injuries, and assesses the huge void he will leave behind in Unai Emery’s midfield.
Aaron Ramsey is standing on the right-hand side of the Wembley pitch when he collects Bacary Sagna’s pass. It is the 2014 FA Cup final and Arsenal are deep into extra-time against Hull. They have recovered from two goals down to get this far. They are exhausted. But they need something more if they are to end their nine-year wait for a trophy.
Ramsey’s poor control betrays his tiredness, forcing him back to Mikel Arteta, but as Arsenal begin to work the ball forwards again, he spots an opportunity. He times his run into the box perfectly, meeting Olivier Giroud’s backheel with a first-time finish which creeps inside Allan McGregor’s near post and sparks delirious scenes of celebration.
- Live Football: What’s on Sky Sports this week
- Get 2 football channels for the price of 1
It was a historic goal which underlined Ramsey’s knack for rising to the big occasion – he would further enhance his legacy by repeating the trick in the 2017 final against Chelsea three years later – and in the context of Arsenal’s 2013/14 season it was also a reminder of what might have been.
Ramsey had been outstanding in the first half of that campaign, putting the trauma of his 2011 leg break firmly behind him and leading Arsenal’s charge to the top of the Premier League table, but Arsenal’s title challenge fell apart after he succumbed to a thigh injury in December.
Between his early withdrawal away to West Ham that Boxing Day and his return to action the following April, Arsenal won just seven of their 15 Premier League games, falling a long way behind Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea and crashing out of the Champions League to Bayern Munich.
- Ozil: I want to stay at Arsenal
Ramsey helped to arrest their slide after that, his return prompting an upturn in form which saw Arsenal finish just seven points off the top in fourth place before they lifted the FA Cup on that draining afternoon at Wembley. But it is not unreasonable to suggest they would have been competing for bigger honours had their talisman avoided injury.
Sadly, injuries have proved a reoccurring theme of Ramsey’s Arsenal career. He has only reached 30 Premier League appearances in one of the last six seasons and it is grimly fitting that it is another injury which has now brought a premature end to his time at Arsenal ahead of his move to Juventus.
It is fitting, too, that Arsenal have missed him so badly since he suffered that hamstring injury against Napoli two weeks ago.
Arsenal were unbeaten in Ramsey’s last eight starts before that. He had even shown his appetite for the big games with another Wembley goal against Tottenham. But another dismal run of form without him has changed the complexion of another season. In the last three games, there has been a glaring absence of energy and guile in Arsenal’s midfield.
They are qualities that Ramsey provides in abundance.
The Welshman has never reached the heights of his 16-goal 2013/14 season again in terms of scoring, but he still ranks fourth among Arsenal players for goals scored since the start of the 2011/12 campaign, while only Mesut Ozil has created more chances or provided more assists. It is a testament to his completeness that Ramsey also ranks top for tackles.
It is more difficult to measure the value of his leadership, attitude and work-rate, but what’s certain is that his impending move to Juventus, agreed in February after Arsenal withdrew their offer of a new contract, has not affected his professionalism.
On the contrary, Unai Emery has repeatedly praised Ramsey’s focus. “Awesome,” was his assessment of the midfielder after his starring display in the 2-0 win over Napoli last month. “Here, with our supporters, he gives us more than he can to give the best performance, not individually but thinking always in the collective.”
- Charlie’s European predictions
It’s that attitude, that dedication, which helped Ramsey force his way back into the Arsenal team in the second half of the season, and while it is perhaps understandable that Emery was initially reluctant to use him regularly once it became clear he would not be staying at the club beyond this summer, ultimately it is a decision he may come to regret.
Arsenal’s win rate with Ramsey starting this season stands at 71 per cent. Without him, it plummets to 52 per cent.
It is a stark difference and it is little wonder that Arsene Wenger, the man who brought Ramsey to the Emirates Stadium from Cardiff a decade ago, chose to break his silence on all things Arsenal to say how much of a blow his departure will be to his former side earlier this season.
“It will be a loss for Arsenal,” said the Frenchman. “He is a player who is great going forward. His main quality is he can keep the final ball and he makes interesting runs from deep. You don’t find many players today who can make midfield runs off the ball.”
That goal against Hull in 2014 is one example of a run like that and there have been plenty of others, but Emery, for his part, has done his best to sound more sanguine than his predecessor.
In conversation with Sky Sports at Arsenal’s London Colney headquarters last week, he insisted he was confident of finding an adequate replacement for Ramsey and even suggested that the solution might come from within. “We could replace him with a player from outside,” he said, “or with a player who is already here who can grow like he did himself.”