Under a sunny Swiss sky in 2008, at a café near Basel, Arsène Wenger made his pitch. And a young, 17-year-old Welshman listened.
Six years later, Aaron Ramsey delivered Arsenal their first trophy since 2005.
Ramsey is all that remains Wenger’s British core; a generation of players whose moments of brilliance form a collage of some Arsenal’s best moments from recent years.
When the now ex-Arsenal manager signed Ramsey, Wenger spoke of the “fantastic engine, good technique, and vision” that has defined the midfielder’s tenure with the North London club, but even in the blissful aftermath of a new, young, signing Arsenal fans wanted to know what kind of player Ramsey was.
Dave Jones, Ramsey’s manager at Cardiff City hailed his versatility; the young starlet had spent time in central midfield, as a free flowing no. 10, on both flanks, and even as a fullback.
“From the beginning, Ramsey preferred central midfield — that was clear to see – but the player’s versatility and unique skill-set meant he was destined to be shuttled in and out of the centre of the pitch, relied upon wherever the manager needed him most.
Ramsey’s best season came in 2013/14 as part of a midfield three, alongside Mikel Arteta, behind the number 10 – Mesut Özil. An attacking three of Santi Cazorla, Olivier Giroud and Lucas Podolski threatened goal for the Gunners.
That season Ramsey notched 10 league goals and 8 assists in 20 appearances, but it’s often the following season that is discussed when it comes to his versatility.
Colloquially known as “that-one-season-Ramsey-was-good-on-the-wing,” the Welshman netted a pair of league goals and three assists from nine appearances on the right side of the attack. It was part of an experiment to fit Ramsey, Ozil, Cazorla and Francis Coquelin in the same starting eleven.
But even in 2014/15, Ramsey appeared nearly twice as often in central midfield as on the right, the result of the experiment is as clear then as it is now: For all his talents, Ramsey prefers to be in the middle, and his performances reflect it.
Ramsey’s performances come with a caveat. The seasons in which he played the most – 2016/17 – was a season in which Cazorla was injured or, like in 2012/13 and 2014/15, when Cazorla frequently played in a more advanced role.
An Arsenal that featured a healthy Cazorla and Özil no longer required Ramsey. He was shifted from the middle, or relegated to the role of substitute.
Once again Ramsey finds himself in the same situation: ousted to make room for others.
It’s why Milan are confident they’ll be able to pry to creative midfielder away in January; why Manchester United are keeping their eye on the player they missed out on a decade ago, and why so many Arsenal fans are anxiously following his contract negotiations.
It’s also why many fear losing one of Arsenal’s most unique players.
Coyly nicknamed the Welsh Messi, Ramsey earned his reputation through moments of spectacular individual brilliance. Moments that leave spectators in awe, wondering how the marauding midfielder managed to pull off the unthinkable at the highest level of football, but – perhaps sadistically – they’re also reminders of the player Ramsey could be.
Ramsey is the best of Wenger’s British core; the best of a collection of players who never hid their promise, whose potential broke through in flashes, like hazy memories after a night of celebration. A group who never seemed to reach their ceiling, but who consistently offered hints of greatness, sprinkled among often inconsistent performances.
Even this season Ramsey has managed to toe the line between underperforming and exemplary. Despite an abysmal start to the season Ramsey managed a pair of assists against Everton. He followed that up with a goal and an assist against Fulham after coming on as a substitute.
The dichotomy between his performances week-in and week-out is a reminder of the end of Wenger’s era, and of generation to which Ramsey belongs.
Like Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, like Keiran Gibbs and Theo Walcott, Ramsey was part of a core that looked to be the future of Arsenal and their respective national teams. And perhaps even more than that — perhaps this group would show that they could take the inconsistent and make it consistent, that they could wind back the clock on Arsenal’s setting sun, that they could become what the masses wanted so badly.
Water into wine and all that.
But saviours they were not.
Those young players, like so many who had come before, never quite fulfilled the lofty expectations set by those who ran rampant around Highbury in the early 2000s.
Ramsey came the closest, though.
A magisterial performance in the 2016 Euros, and his seeming ability to turn the tide of a match at will, left spectators with the sense that beyond his routine performances was a player capable of becoming truly elite.
The rest of his ex-teammates never found a level like that; Oxlade-Chamberlain managed to show promise to a certain degree after moving to Liverpool and studying under Jurgen Klopp. It remains to be seen if Marco Silva can have the same effect on Walcott. Wilshere never became the player he flirted he could be on that night against Barcelona. And Gibbs, well, he plays in the Championship now.
Ramsey is still, if just barely, a mercurial talent. He’s a club favourite capable of shifting throughout a midfield — capable of turning back time and transporting you to an era when Arsenal fans saw more in him than what he truly is.
Now, removed from Wenger and sided with new explosive young talents in his position, he’s become a supplementary player — a luxury talent whose abilities no longer suit Emery’s Arsenal.
Ramsey hasn’t had the opportunity to achieve new heights under Unai Emery, but perhaps another manager, and a new challenge, can unlock the potential that lurks under the surface.
A Canadian video journalist, Colton Praill is quick with a pen or a microphone. He’s a podcaster, writer and visual storyteller covering Arsenal, English football and the world around him.