Midfielder's goal-scoring start to the season shows he has recovered his full powers after a horrific leg injury
When Arsène Wenger outlined his reasons for optimism in pre-season he touched on the theory that members of his Arsenal squad might actually improve. The notion was not entirely pooh-poohed but it was certainly not what the club's supporters wanted to hear. They craved big-money signings. They did not want the painstaking nurture of what the manager already had. In loud, fast, I-want-it-now London, this kind of thing is not cool.
Wenger was thinking about several players, prominent among them his signings from the previous summer and winter transfer windows. Olivier Giroud, Santi Cazorla, Lukas Podolski and Nacho Monreal would surely get better in their second Premier League season. Then, there was Jack Wilshere, who had looked hungry during his first proper pre-season since 2010 and his well-documented foot problems.
But, above all, Wenger was thinking about a midfielder whose career might have ended three and a half years ago and who had come to show flickers of his true self over the final months of last season.
Wenger loves Aaron Ramsey. He has done since he courted him as a Cardiff City player and flew him and his parents to Switzerland on a private jet in the summer of 2008, where he was working as a European Championship pundit, to convince Ramsey to sign for Arsenal. As Manchester United dithered, Wenger's personal touch was decisive.
Wenger's faith in Ramsey has never wavered and he has yearned for him to succeed, largely because he sees in him so many of the values that he holds dear. Technically superb, Ramsey is a student of the game, level-headed, intelligent and always determined to learn. Yet he is also tough, a genuine fighter, and he has needed to be, given the challenges that have towered before him.
They have included the pressures of being a 17-year-old who cost £5m when he moved to Arsenal; the fierce battle for recognition at a leading club and his status as one of Wales' great hopes. But it is the injury that colours any assessment of Ramsey, the one at Stoke City on 27 February 2010, when he looked down after a challenge with Ryan Shawcross to see his lower right leg resembling something out of a horror film.
There had been the fear in the long months after the fibula and tibia were fractured that Ramsey might never become the player that he threatened to be as a swashbuckling teenager. There was more excitement in Wales about Ramsey's emergence than that of his peer and compatriot Gareth Bale, who is now the world's most expensive player at Real Madrid.
But the concerns have made the Ramsey comeback story only sweeter; they have sugared it to the point where it has been arguably the season's most uplifting so far. The 22-year-old is the in-form player at the club that sits on top of the Premier League table. To Wenger this is not only vindication but football in its purest sense.
Ramsey's numbers have been astonishing. Previously his 11 goals across five seasons for Arsenal had been notable for a grisly quirk. When Ramsey scored, a famous person died. Osama bin Laden, Steve Jobs, Colonel Gaddafi and Whitney Houston each met their maker shortly after Ramsey found the net. This season Ramsey has seven goals in eight club appearances. They have been marked by power, precision and the absence of a celebrity body trail.
It has not just been the goals. Ramsey has covered a prodigious amount of ground; he has imposed his will and physical strength on matches and, to quote Wenger, "he is now brushing opponents off and running away from them with ease. It's a great feeling for a midfielder to do that."
The search has been on to identify the turning point for Ramsey; the magical moment when his stars came into alignment. But there has not been one. The reality has been less showy and, as such, it has chimed neatly with Ramsey's personality and professionalism.
Talk to anybody close to him at Arsenal or Wales and they mention one thing: confidence. For much of Ramsey's Arsenal career he has been in and out of the starting XI and he has been played out of position in wide midfield. He has done a job for the team at full-back. The Emirates crowd have been impatient with him.
But, from late January, Wenger has started him exclusively in central midfield, sitting deep, with the game in front of him – in short, precisely how Ramsey likes it. With the injury, at last, no more than a scratch on his subconscious, he has got into a groove and he has grown. He has taken fewer touches – a sure sign of confidence – and the instincts have taken over. He has become quicker and slicker. He was central to Arsenal's impressive finish from mid-March last season.
"I was very happy with my form at the end of last season," Ramsey said during the club's tour of east Asia in July. "I was playing in central midfield, which is my favourite position. I think I proved a lot of people wrong … showed exactly what I can do and there's a lot more to come from me. Scoring goals is one thing I need to improve on. I need to work on my composure in front of goal."
Those comments have taken on a prophetic ring. Ramsey has long had the ability to score goals – he hit screamers against England and Italy during his Wales Under-21 career – and he is now seeing it happen at the highest level, which has embossed his man-of-the-moment tag. Wenger dare not shunt Ramsey wide or to the bench. Instead, with Mesut Özil on board, it has been Wilshere who has been pressed away from centre stage. England's great hope must play second fiddle.
Ramsey's journey has seen him assume the Wales captaincy and lose it. Given the honour by Gary Speed, he was considered to be trying to do too much – he would even rush to take throw-ins – and Chris Coleman deemed it wise to remove the responsibility from him. It has been painted variously as a weight off Ramsey's shoulders and a kick in the guts. What is clear is that Ramsey rolls with the punches. His mentality is formidable. He was outstanding against Macedonia in Skopje earlier in the month.
"It's the best I've seen him," Craig Bellamy, the Wales forward, said. "I've taken more of an interest in Aaron than any other Wales player because his father is from the same area of Cardiff as I am. I knew him coming up as a kid. You have a lot to deal with when an injury like that happens to you and he's had a couple of personal issues to deal with that people don't know about.
"You don't really know what goes on in a young footballer's mind but what he has been through, the injuries and everything else, has helped him to become the player he is. There isn't a person out there in football who didn't expect that kind of performance from him [against Macedonia]. He's been capable of it. We are seeing it."
Coleman's playing career was ended by injury and the Wales manager's insight is pertinent. "People talk about the physical part of serious injuries, which is important as you have to get the agility back, but, mentally, it is tough," he said. "The best way to get through it is to play lots of games. It's been stop-start for Aaron at Arsenal because he is surrounded by good players and he hasn't always been first-choice.
"It's taken him time but you have to look at him during pre-season and the start of the season and say that he's got himself in the position where he's playing the football we all thought he was capable of. All that has happened is he's taken time and games to get stronger and get that fluidity back in his play. He's defending well, positionally he is much better and he's linking the play up in the last third. He's playing his best football, even before he had the injury. He's been brilliant."
Ramsey and the injury will be forever entwined, and he is aware of the debt he owes to the progress of medical science, not to mention his surgeon. "Maybe 10 years ago it might have been a different story," he says. "But medicine has come on so far since then that it's given me an opportunity to carry on playing. I sent the surgeon a few things. I thanked him for what he did."
Ramsey is rarely satisfied with his game. After his goal in the 2-1 Champions League win at Marseille last week, he beat himself up about the harsh last-minute penalty that he conceded. Yet he has had a year to savour. Wenger has long known about the gem at his disposal. Broader recognition has dawned.