As one great all-round midfielder departs the Premier League, another is determined to be the man to step up in his place.
In an era of increased positional specialisation—especially in midfield, where even the best European teams often seem to select players on the basis of their proficiency in one valued skill, rather than a mastery of many of them—Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey is unashamed in his desire to become recognised as that rare beast who does it all (and does it all well); the dominant midfielder with every skill in his locker and no real weakness in his game.
The Premier League has seen a few such players in its time—Roy Keane, Patrick Vieira, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard—but, with Gerrard and Lampard both having now left the stage, Ramsey is not afraid to voice his intention to be the man to continue that respected bloodline.
“I think a top-class midfielder needs to be able to tackle, get up and down the pitch, pass, create opportunities and score goals,” Ramsey tells Bleacher Report, when asked how he evaluates his performances on a weekly basis. “That’s why I try to do everything, that’s what I judge my game on.
“If you look at someone like Steven Gerrard, he combines all of those elements. That’s what I want to [emulate]… so that’s what I base my game on.”
In pursuit of that high ambition, Ramsey is analytical in his preparation. He constantly sets and revises his targets (not just for goals—at least double figures each season—but also in categories like tackles made and passes completed) and pores over his statistics after each and every match. “It’s something I like to do, just to see generally where I am, compared to other games.”
The most recently completed season with Arsenal gets a cautiously positive personal assessment, although once again injuries caused the 24-year-old a huge amount of frustration, preventing him from fully hitting his stride.
In the 2013/14 season, he was in player-of-the-year form before a long-term injury effectively ruled him out of the second half of the campaign; this time the setbacks came in the form of a handful of shorter layoffs, injuries that derailed him every time he looked like rescaling the heights of the previous season.
It is consistency, maintaining his fitness and form, that Ramsey is therefore looking for above all next season, a quality he believes Arsenal similarly need to improve on if they are to close the gap to Premier League champions Chelsea.
“I think our general form, in the second half of the season especially, was really good,” he notes, highlighting away wins against Manchester City (in the league) and Manchester United (in the FA Cup) as signs of the squad’s growth. “What we managed to show throughout the season is that we can compete against the biggest teams, and now we must build on that for next season.”
A third-place finish, after years of struggling to secure fourth, was taken as a positive step by many observers, while winning the FA Cup for the second time in as many years means Arsenal's trophy drought now appears a distant memory. It all adds up to tangible progress, progress Ramsey believes will continue in the coming months. “We can start the season on the front foot and with greater ambitions,” Ramsey says of the Wembley win."
He added: “We are going in the right direction. We have improved as a team defensively, and obviously we’ve shown we are able to create and score goals so it’s just about getting that consistency throughout the season.”
The arrival of Alexis Sanchez undoubtedly improved the Gunners this season, with the Chilean hitting the ground running in English football (“It’s unbelievable that he’s settled in like he has,” Ramsey notes. “He’s done really well.”). With Mesut Ozil acquired at similar expense 12 months earlier, Ramsey likes the way the squad has continued to get stronger and stronger and now believes the core is in place to challenge on all fronts.
“It’s nice to have that sort of quality coming into the squad,” he says. “I think the club is in a position now where we can buy these sorts of players, and also keep our players as well. I am sure, like any season, there will be a couple more additions this summer.
“So, that, I think, is definitely going to help us in the long-term in trying to win the Premier League.”
Winning the league remains the target, and Ramsey is not afraid to acknowledge that desire to supplant Chelsea in the coming season. He knows his side can learn from Jose Mourinho’s group in a lot of ways but believes Arsenal have the edge on them in their style of play.
“I think we do like to get the ball down and move it quickly, and play one- and two-touch and keep the ball. We can be very explosive in our movements, and when it all clicks it’s very easy on the eye. I think it’s fair to say it’s the best in the Premier League.”
And Ramsey, when fit, is an important cog in that—both as a shield to his side's defenders and a valuable contributor of goals from midfield.
Seven years on from arriving at the Emirates for an initial £5 million fee, Ramsey has justified Arsenal’s eye for a talent perhaps more than any of the young guns who were brought to the club in similar fashion.
Barely 16 when he made his debut for Cardiff City—a 90th-minute cameo in the final game of the 2006/07 season—Ramsey, a lithe, technically precise wide midfielder, was the subject of Premier League interest before he had even started a game for the Bluebirds. By the time he played for his childhood club in the final of the FA Cup in 2008, he had the team he supported, Manchester United, pursuing his signature, along with almost every other big English side you could care to name.
It was Arsenal Ramsey would chose, both for the team’s style of play and the manager who oversaw it. Since arriving at the club as a shy Valleys kid who preferred to do his talking on the pitch, it is fair to say that Arsene Wenger has gradually become a hugely influential figure in both Ramsey’s career and his life—someone the midfielder can talk to not just about football matters, but personal issues as well.
“He’s very approachable,” Ramsey says of Wenger the training ground coach. “He’s a great man-manager and he will always do the best for you and what he can to help you.”
Wenger’s management may be called into question frequently in the media these days—one bad result seems to spark a flurry of negative press—but it is deep relationships with his players that ensure he has their full support.
“That’s just something that is…that is made up every time there is a bad result,” Ramsey says of the criticism that can follow the manager, shaking his head. “But it’s silly really and we don’t notice. We all believe in the way he wants us to play the game, he has the backing of the players. We don’t take notice of the other stuff.”
The atmosphere is less volatile at international level, where Ramsey is currently a key part of Wales’ bid to qualify for a first international tournament since 1958. The man from Caerphilly admits that he always dreamed about playing for his country at a major tournament (something the likes of Ryan Giggs and Ian Rush never managed), but he concedes that he also wondered whether such an ambition would ever be viable.
“It was always in the back of my mind, to try and achieve that. It’s definitely been a goal of mine,” he says. “Just what a feeling it would be. I knew it was always going to be difficult, because we haven’t done it for so many years, we don’t have a lot of people to choose from, and having all these players in so many positions come together at the same time is quite hard to get.”
Last week’s victory over Belgium—“a key match” Ramsey called it before the game—means the dream could very soon become a reality. Aware of the rare opportunity that is currently being presented to Chris Coleman’s side, it is perhaps little surprise that the mood in the camp is electric.
“I think that is one thing as well that has helped us,” Ramsey notes. “We’ve had to dig deep in some games, we’ve had to fight for each other and battle for each other. It’s a good camp to be in.”
Ramsey has scored goals for club and country, and he says it is hard to describe the mixture of emotions that come with both. He has no doubts about the best goal he has scored so far in his career, however: The 35-yard rocket against Galatasaray in this season’s Champions League stands out by a mile.
“That’s definitely the best I’ve scored so far,” Ramsey laughs, clearly still tickled by the memory. “Definitely the best in my career. When I hit it, I think even I was a bit surprised at how it went in. And their fans at the end, they were standing and applauding; that was a good feeling.”
Galatasaray fans are not the only ones who have been applauding in recent times. Ramsey has been linked with a move to European champions Barcelona in recent months by Graeme Bryce of the Sun. It is an indication of his status within the game and of itself, while he has also garnered high praise from television pundits who are starting to see a player among the very finest in his position in the world.
Ramsey does not shy away from such praise or an intent to push on even further.
“I want to keep on improving as a player, and become the best…one of the best midfielders in my position in the world,” he says. “In all ways I want to be better, in all of these things that top midfielders can do.
“If I progress the way that I think I can, the way that I have been, then I believe I can achieve that.”
Aaron Ramsey wears the New Balance Football Visaro range, a boot designed for players who ‘Make Chances’. To find out more about New Balance Football go to newbalance.com/football or follow @NBFootball on Twitter and Instagram.