It wouldn’t be summer without a saga and Arsenal are again toeing the contractual high beam with Aaron Ramsey this summer. The Welshman has 1 year left on his Gunners deal and having viewed the distracting Alexis Sanchez situation last season, the club will look to force Aaron’s hand in a showdown at high noon style situation.
Ramsey won the Arsenal.com Player of the Season award for 2017-18 following a season in which he notched 12 goals and 9 assists in 36 appearances across all competitions. It represents his best season since 2013-14 and Rambo is just about to enter his peak years. Keeping him is clearly important, but is it critical?
I have spent many years defending Ramsey and championing his talents when, it is fair to say, some Arsenal fans have been sceptical about his abilities. So it could well be that I am subconsciously defending myself against future disappointment with a pre-emptive blast of sour grapes, but I don’t think it would be an unmitigated disaster to lose him this summer.
21 direct goal contributions in 36 appearances is an impressive ratio- but the concerning statistic is the latter one. Once again, Ramsey required nursing through the season due to soft tissue issues. He broke down with a hamstring injury in December despite being spared the entirety of the Europa League group stage.
It’s the ever present Ramsey conundrum- the explosive style of play that makes him so good takes an immense physical toll on him. It seems unlikely that that situation will improve with age. On a purely economic level, the club are entitled to ask whether they want to sink significant wages into the player into his early 30s (because that’s where a new contract would take us).
During the latter stage of the season, Ramsey was given equal billing to Laurent Koscielny in terms of Wenger’s faith in his ability to play two games in a week. Whilst accepting that their physical injuries are not exactly identical, that’s not a stage a 27 year old wants to be sharing.
Even if they could probably use a forward adept at beating defenders, there is the impression that Arsenal’s squad is top heavy. The attack has been overhauled over the last 12 months. Theo Walcott had fallen out of favour, Olivier Giroud had slipped into the ‘break glass in case of emergency’ case and Alexis Sanchez left for Manchester United.
Sanchez’s productivity was such that the club replaced him with two players- Pierre Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, in addition to the summer acquisition of Alexandre Lacazette. Unlike Giroud and Walcott, all of these players expect to start and have been bought with that expectation. Arsenal also sunk a good £350,000 a week into retaining Mesut Özil in January.
It is difficult to see how Arsenal accommodate all of those players. Obviously rotation and competition for places are essential criteria in a squad that aspires for the elite. But it is also important to maintain balance in one’s squad options. I don’t think the removal of Ramsey would unduly unbalance the Gunners.
Ramsey has become so important to the team because of his dashing runs into the penalty area, providing crucial support to a lone striker. But if Unai Emery finds a way to get Lacazette and Aubameyang into the same team, that attribute is potentially covered by his colleagues. Henrikh Mkhitaryan has also picked up some goalscoring slack since his arrival.
Given the emphasis on attack and goalscoring in the modern game, I would still rather have Ramsey than not. But I think his loss could be absorbed if the money his sale would attract were used wisely on areas of greater priority. The club has to rebuild much of its backline in 1-2 windows.
There are potential parallels with Liverpool selling Philippe Coutinho and using the cash to buy Virgil van Dijk. Because off the ball, Arsenal need quite a bit of work. Granit Xhaka is a perfect partner for Aaron Ramsey. Ramsey likes to take up progressive positions between the lines and Xhaka has the ability to find him with line breaking passes.
Despite his propensity to go forward, Ramsey has never combined well with a pure destroyer. His partnerships with Francis Coquelin and Mathieu Flamini jarred because neither had the knack of being able to give him the ball in the nooks and crannies he likes to inhabit. It is no coincidence that Aaron’s most productive seasons have come alongside Mikel Arteta and Granit Xhaka.
But Ramsey is probably not the ideal partner for Xhaka. Granit is a deep lying playmaker, he’s not a destroyer- even if his defensive instincts have improved in 2018. Pirlo had Gattuso. Alonso had Mascherano. Modric has Casemiro. Xavi had Busquets. Xhaka does not have this kind of partner.
Purchasing this sort of player will be, I think, a priority for Emery. Xhaka + New defensive midfielder + Ramsey + Özil doesn’t really compute, unless you treat the wide areas like some kind of exclusion zone. If Arsenal can get a good price for Aaron, which surely they would at this stage, the shape of the team potentially becomes a little clearer and more like a unit than a shoehorning exercise if the proceeds are spent well.
With a lot of the transfer readies spent on a pair of £50m strikers, Arsenal don’t have much in the piggy bank to rebuild the defensive division of the team. Whilst not ideal, losing one from the attacking unit is a loss that could be absorbed if it contributes to that rebuild and helps to balance the team. If Arsenal do lose Ramsey, it seems unlikely they will try to replace him with a similar type of player.
Of course, much of this is contingent on how the new coach moulds the team. He may have a hitherto unforeseen solution to fitting Arsenal’s best attacking players together. But I have to say I am pessimistic about the prospect of the Welshman signing on in any case. He has been with the club for a decade and has previously voiced an ambition to play abroad.
It would be difficult to begrudge him a change of scenery at this stage- particularly if that scenery has a continental visage. It would undoubtedly be “a bad PR move” to lose Ramsey now, but bad PR is always supplanted by good results. The club has survived the loss of several big players in recent years.
In essence, awarding Özil such a sizeable contract had a PR concession built into it and it ought to leave enough good will in the bank if Ramsey were to leave. The arrivals of Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang proved a soothing balm to the loss of Alexis in January. PR is a consideration in this day and age, but it’s a secondary one.
Ramsey is a player I have always admired and seen the best in. We are all guilty of performing mental gymnastics in order to chisel our favourites into our fantasy starting XIs. But elite sport and sentiment are not always good bedfellows. Given the choice, I would rather Aaron signed a new contract and I would be delighted if he did. But if he doesn’t, I think the club could cope with his departure.
Renowned Arsenal historians Andy Kelly and Mark Andrews and I have written a book about the tumultuous early years of Arsenal Football Club covering the period 1886 – 1893. ‘Royal Arsenal- Champions of the South’ is available for pre-order here.