While England fans wonder whether they could possibly (pretty please) have Tottenham’s version of Harry Kane next time there is a major tournament, Arsenal supporters must be hoping that Wales’ Aaron Ramsey – the one with the luminous hair and boundless supplies of energy and creativity – returns to Arsenal in July rather than the version of Aaron Ramsey they have been enduring for two years.
This Ramsey drives forward, exudes confidence, makes intelligent runs and actually delivers. By half-time in Wales’ quarter-final clash with Belgium, Ramsey had created five chances; he averaged 1.2 key passes per game last season with Arsenal. His sixth – and finest – moment of creativity brought his second assist of the game and his fourth of the tournament. To save you the Google search…yes, that’s the same number of assists he notched in the whole of last season in the Premier League.
To those asking ‘why can’t we have that Ramsey?’, we’re sorry but it’s now close to impossible. Arsenal cannot recreate the environment that has spawned one of the undoubted stars of the tournament, the man whose ridiculous absence from the semi-finals will boost Portugal and truly harm Wales. There is no situation more conducive to creativity than being the second-best player of a team with low expectations, and that is never going to happen again for Ramsey at Arsenal.
For the past two seasons, Ramsey has been eyed with suspicion as a passenger in north London, lacking the discipline to play in a two-man withdrawn midfield or the pace to play wide. His every wayward pass was met with derision, every missed tackle with arms thrown aloft and cries of “for f***’s sake, Ramsey”. Arsenal had Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil for moments of pure fantasy or breathtaking vision and needed Ramsey to be reliable, to be effective, to facilitate. And don’t ever make a mistake because the crowd can soon turn.
Contrast that with his performances at Euro 2016 with Wales, who exceeded expectations the minute they beat Slovakia. No fan is noting pass completion rates, no fan is imploring the manager to hold up his number, no fan is screaming abuse as he fails to close down Radja Nainggolan for Belgium’s opener. Imagine that were Arsenal; imagine that were England. When Chris Coleman talks about affording Ramsey “freedom”, he may not only be talking tactics.
“Don’t be afraid to dream; don’t be afraid to fail,” insisted an emotional manager after the match, and that rings true. For Wales, Ramsey has the priceless freedom to make mistakes.
“With Rambo, if you let him play with that imagination, he’s going to stand out. He’s going to do something spectacular,” said Coleman. Sorry Aaron, but Arsene Wenger is unlikely to let you play with that imagination. He is unlikely to give you the comfort blanket of two more defensive midfielders, he is unlikely to let you wander both hither and thither in search of space and he is unable to ease the pressure from fans desperate for a title challenge. These last three weeks must have felt like a joyous holiday to Ramsey, who is brilliant enough to be absolved of most defensive duties but not quite frightening enough to be enthusiastically marked like Bale.
Take Wales’ second goal and a long ball out of defence that found him the most advanced of Wales’ attacking players, crossing runs with Hal Robson-Kanu to fool a naive Belgian defence. That goal could never have happened for Arsenal; the idea that Ramsey would be so far up the pitch in a defensive situation is preposterous. Coleman describes him as “box to box” but the Arsenal of 2016 lacks the dynamism that requires “box to box”.
The great shame of Ramsey missing the semi-final through suspension is that we may not see this potent version of the Welshman for another two years. The challenge is now on to the rest of the Wales side to get this freestyler to a final.