The Bitterest Pill

As separations go, Arsenal’s amicable divorce from Aaron Ramsey might be the most painful break up yet for the Gunners faithful. At least with van Persie, Cole and Fabregas, there was a sense of soothing, redemptive anger. We could place the blame firmly on the shoulders of the other party, regardless of whether that was fair or not. A simple snake emoji, a dogshit through the letterbox and the wound soon healed.

Aaron Ramsey’s insistence on being amicable and reasonable about his impending move to Juventus is making this particular break-up difficult to swallow. ‘You’re letting me have the coffee maker even though it was a gift that I bought for you? YOU BASTARD! As for the limited edition Stones vinyl, how am I supposed to smash it in your face in an impotent rage when you’re insisting I keep it?!

In essence, Arsenal have undertaken the ‘getting over him’ process in reverse. Earlier in the season, Unai Emery tried to wean his team off the Welshman and his irresistible, impossibly boyish charm. There were even whispers of a January sale, which may or may not have explained his sparing use in the first half of the season. Ramsey has a history of soft tissue injuries, of course, and has actually surpassed his appearance total for the last two seasons during 2018-19.

His minutes are still some way short of last season’s total however. But that gap is closing as Emery comes to rely on Rambo more and more. He has become indispensable at the point of departure, leaving Arsenal fans reaching for the ice cream and rom coms as they tearfully watch him dominate another opposition midfield.

Back in February, I wrote about Aaron securing his legacy by moving abroad in a scenario where the club is more to blame than the player. Emotionally, he has played a solid hand, but tactically, he has improved this season and convinced his coach of his importance.

One of the many regrettable upshots of this is that, for the six months after his departure, every below par performance will be attributed to his departure. In some scenarios it will be true, others less so, but it will always be ‘the reason’ for underperformance. I’m just warning you. Rambo has confirmed his value to Arsenal by demonstrating what those who valued him most understood. He is more than just a goal scoring midfielder, he is an all rounder.

Maybe even the player himself forgot this at times, towards the end of Arsene Wenger’s reign, when his value seemed to be entirely measured by goal contribution. I always felt there was more to Ramsey than that. I always thought that he could do everything required of a modern midfielder well and we are seeing that in recent weeks. He can fill gaps defensively, he does collect the ball from his centre halves and distribute well, he can dribble in tight spaces.

That is to say, if you give Ramsey a job to do, he can do it. Maybe towards the end of Wenger’s reign, he just wasn’t given a job, or else the only job he was given was to get into the penalty area. He has become so important to Emery’s side because he solves an issue that has dogged the new Head Coach all season. Emery has struggled to reconcile the balance of his team between attack and defence.

He has flitted between having a solid midfield base of Xhaka, Torreira and / or Guendouzi at the expense of a fourth attacker. Protect a shaky defence and lose some offensive potential or lean into the attack and sacrifice some defensive security? Ramsey solves the issue because he can simultaneously operate as part of a double pivot and support the front three.

I have always been a huge fan of Aaron’s qualities, even in the dark old days of 2012 when his post-injury form was questionable to say the least. In November 2012, somebody swore at me profusely at a urinal at Goodison Park for being persistently encouraged by Ramsey’s talents. He has divided opinion during his Arsenal tenure, but even as a consistent cheerleader, I admit I have been forced to revise some of my views on him.

Last May, I wrote a column suggesting that the time was right to sell. In principle, I stick by proclamation, but purely on the financial detail. Barring the very elite players (Messi at Barcelona, Bergkamp at Arsenal), I think all players have a shelf-life at a club before a natural end occurs. Even Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira stayed beyond their ideal expiry dates in N5 in my opinion.

I felt the point had been reached with Ramsey where he should have been moved on at great profit and the money reinvested into the new era. I felt Ramsey was an Arsene Wenger player who had come to crave freedom and chaos, stepping into the ordered universe of Unai Emery. Despite my enduring love for the player, I have been able to sip mightily from the font of kool-aid with regards his impending departure.

Save for the fiscal lunacy of losing him on a free transfer, I felt the time was right for a mutually satisfactory departure. What I have learned, is that Ramsey is not cryogenically frozen into the Wenger mould. He has not only adapted, but thrived in Unai Emery’s more controlled environment. He has been willing to rediscover his full array of attributes. Even I underestimated him, the man who was accosted by a stranger mid-urination for being too effusive about his qualities.

Of course, there are elements of the structure that have assisted Ramsey. Playing him as a number 8 with a license for the occasional burst looks far less risky when there are three central defenders behind the engine room, two of whom, in Koscielny and Sokratis, are integral to the structure of this Arsenal team.

In a sense, Arsenal are ending this season a little like they did the 2016-17 season, with a back three that gives Ramsey and Özil a little extra padding. There is a fair argument to suggest that Emery ought to have arrived at this conclusion much sooner, but invisible political machinations have undoubtedly governed the use of Ramsey and Özil at times this season, all of which might well have been necessary evils for Arsenal’s development.

The recently realised reliance on Ramsey probably creates further teething issues at the beginning of next season, as the transition process reboots. But Arsenal’s squad has been constructed in such a way that annual transition is going to be a programming bug for the next 2-3 seasons anyway. In the meantime, Arsenal’s slow motion break-up with Aaron Ramsey will claim many a few more hearts yet.

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