2016 is gearing up to be a good year for Arsenal. The Gunners are sat on top of the Premier League, are defending the FA Cup for the second successive year and have a glamour Champions League tie against Barcelona on the horizon.
At the foundation of their success has been the growth of a collective spirit and style of play. However, 2016 could also be a year in which individuals shine. The one player particularly worth keeping an eye on is Welsh midfielder Aaron Ramsey.
That might seem strange in a team including the likes of Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez. They light up any field they step onto with their ability. However, they are already stellar talents whose credentials are well-known. Ramsey is the man to watch precisely because he’s not yet at that level.
If he continues to progress as he has in the last couple of months, the indications are he could be one of the breakout global stars of 2016.
It would arguably be a year or so later than expected. Ramsey enjoyed a superb first half to the 2013/14 campaign, developing an invaluable habit of capping his box-to-box displays with goals from midfield.
Unfortunately, injury forced him to miss four months of the campaign. Had he not suffered that setback, who knows what heights he might have hit? Nevertheless, he recovered from his thigh problem in time to return for the 2014 FA Cup final, in which he struck the winning goal in extra time to end Arsenal’s nine-year wait for silverware.
That’s typical of Ramsey, who seems to relish seizing responsibility in crunch moments. He’s a player who never hides and is always looking to make something happen in the final third. Occasionally, that can provoke frustration from the crowd—his passing and shooting can verge on the ambitious. However, you can never fault his courage.
After his moment of Wembley glory, many expected Ramsey’s 2014/15 campaign to be another memorable one. However, a succession of injury problems prevented him from making the anticipated impact. When he returned in the second half of the season, he found the central-midfield spots occupied by Santi Cazorla and Francis Coquelin.
That led to Ramsey assuming an unfamiliar role on the right flank. He performed well there, drifting infield to support the central pair as well as running beyond the centre-forward when required. However, it is not and never will be his natural position. Still, his performances saw him linked with a £50 million move to Barcelona, reported by Jack de Menezes of the Independent.
The main reason Ramsey should be so thrilling to watch in 2016 is that he has reclaimed the position where he belongs. With Cazorla and Coquelin sidelined—not to mention the likes of Mikel Arteta and Jack Wilshere—a vacancy was created in the middle of the park.
Ramsey has since filled it brilliantly. While he lacks the metronomic passing ability of Cazorla or the frenzied ball-winning skills of Coquelin, he has an irrepressible engine that allows him to be a hugely positive influence at both ends of the pitch. That mobile style was typified by his recent goal at Aston Villa—after winning the ball back deep inside his own half, he sprinted almost the entire length of the field to finish off the counter-attack with a side-footed finish.
The Welshman’s performances are making him integral to Arsene Wenger’s team once again. When Cazorla returns, he will find it hard to displace Ramsey. With the Spaniard on the wrong side of 30, Wenger will surely now look to build his team around the 25-year-old Ramsey.
In 2016, Ramsey will become Arsenal’s man in the engine room on a full-time basis.
James McNicholas is Bleacher Report's lead Arsenal correspondent and is following the club from a London base throughout 2015/16. Follow him on Twitter here.