The curious case of Aaron Ramsey: Why Arsenal miss midfielder more than Juventus need him

Tom Kershaw
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In a cruel twist of fate, Aaron Ramsey’s most memorable contribution as a Juventus player so far may have been saying sorry. Last November, after Cristiano Ronaldo’s free-kick squirmed through the arms of Lokomotiv Moscow’s goalkeeper, Ramsey steamed in and toe-poked the already goal-bound ball over the line to the dismay of the Portuguese’s devotees – and, it must be said, their deity himself. “My instinct took over,” Ramsey explained afterwards. “I’ve apologised to Cristiano.”

It might be insignificant, but it paints a picture of Ramsey’s minimal impact in Italy. Since making his debut in September, the bare statistics make for ominous reading. Ramsey has scored just twice – ‘theft’ included – and is yet to complete a full 90 minutes. Plagued by three separate injuries, in total, he has almost played 30 hours less football than fellow Serie A arrival Romelu Lukaku this season. And while his arrival on a free transfer was hailed as a coup, his reputed £400,000-per-week pre-tax salary is quickly coming to represent something closer to an economic catastrophe.

Of course, the reality isn’t quite as bleak. The gluttony of Juventus’s recruitment meant Ramsey began the season as one of seven central midfielders, an absurd pool of talent boasting two World Cups and 26 league titles, and a promised summer clear-out will lessen that fierce competition. After 11 seasons at Arsenal, he’s still adapting to the freedom and constraints of a new league, manager, language and environment. They are perfectly apt reasons to explain away any sluggish start. Yet, at a club where anything less than total dominance is framed as a failure, those factors do little to make Ramsey any less expendable.

Take Emre Can. After being signed under similar circumstances from Liverpool in the summer of 2018, he was abruptly left out of Juventus’s Champions League squad at the start of this season and jettisoned to Borussia Dortmund in January after just 18 months. Days after Can’s departure, Juventus’s surprise defeat against Hellas Verona was then followed by a report that the club are open to offloading Ramsey in the summer. No matter how spurious that proves to be, it encapsulates the sense of frustration.

Is anyone to blame in all of this? Perhaps, the step up to one of Europe’s true footballing behemoths has simply been steeper than expected. To say Ramsey was one of Arsenal’s most consistent players isn’t necessarily a great distinction. During the highs, lows, success and dysfunction of a decade under Arsene Wenger, he was a jewel in a rocky side, capable of genuinely stunning moments and firm leadership. But there were also spells where he was guilty of drifting into a duller periphery, another piece in the club’s downward spiral, never quite fulfilling the immense promise of that famed 2013/14 season.

Ironically, the closest Ramsey came to that was in those bittersweet months when his future had already been decided, scything irresistibly through Napoli, artist and wrecking ball against Manchester United and Newcastle. The fireworks, more regularly exhibited on international duty with Wales, on full display.

They were the qualities that persuaded Fabio Paratici, Juventus’s sporting director, that Ramsey’s true calling was as a No 10. Even Maurizio Sarri yielded to sacrilege, forgoing his favoured 4-3-3 to accommodate him in that role. But, so far, those captivating moments haven’t translated overseas. Likewise, the possibility of Ramsey breaking into Sarri’s trio of central midfielders hasn't even seemed to register in the manager’s stubborn sphere of imagination.

Aaron Ramsey joined Juventus on a free transfer after 11 years at Arsenal (Getty)

But to pigeonhole Ramsey there is to misunderstand him as a player entirely. He’s not one of football’s magnetic individualists, yet also never been refined into a singular role. At his best, he is a blur between attack and defence, everywhere at once, a last-ditch tackler, midfield pivot, and goal-threat. In a system as rigorously set and unfamiliar as Sarri’s, those are traits which will always require freedom and patience to replicate.

Is he actually better off? A title race and place in the Champions League last-16 state an obvious case. But Arsenal miss Ramsey far more than Juventus need him. His ghost still occupies a void in an Arsenal squad crying out for a box-to-box midfielder – with Mikel Arteta well known to be prioritising the signing of a player in that mould this summer. He could well have been a talisman – and likely the captain – of the club's reboot. That may well have been a responsibility Ramsey relished beyond any fight for status in Turin, and Arsenal’s decision to ultimately turn their back on a player who remains one of Europe’s best is a mistake which only glares with age. That, really, is the only reason to feel sorry.