Arsenal's Aaron Ramsey aims to be a future captain of the Gunners
Every summer, there's a consensus that Arsenal need new players: sometimes goalkeepers, sometimes defenders, sometimes midfielders and sometimes forwards. But we're always told they need something else, too: leaders.
That's more difficult, because you can't solve that problem overnight in the transfer market. Becoming a leader is generally a gradual progression, a quality that comes with experience at a club after years spent earning the respect of your peers.
For Arsenal, the usual wearers of the captain's armband like Mikel Arteta, Per Mertesacker and Santi Cazorla, arrived late in their careers. Therefore, for a true symbol of the club, you have to look elsewhere. Jack Wilshere, who has spent his entire career at the club, should be at that stage now, but injury problems have hampered his development. Instead, having been at Arsenal for seven years, Aaron Ramsey -- despite being a product of Cardiff, and a proud Welshman -- is now Mr. Arsenal.
Ramsey isn't a classic leader. He's not going to rant and rave like Tony Adams, who remains the archetypical Arsenal captain, a man you instinctively recall bent over, arm outstretched, pointing a teammate into position. Ramsey is different: He'll lead by example. It's useful, then, that Ramsey's own individual development is easy to draw inspiration from.
When Ramsey joined Arsenal in 2008, he was immediately comfortable in the Premier League. The fact he's become a top-drawer player isn't the remarkable aspect; it's the way he overcame huge difficulties, which turned three years -- at a crucial stage in his footballing development -- into a nightmare.
When Ramsey laid on the Stoke City pitch with a broken leg in 2010, it was uncertain he would play again. Besides, those who recover from the initial injury often struggle with subsequent setbacks (see Abou Diaby) or never fully recover mentally (Eduardo). Nevertheless, Ramsey gradually worked his way back, and, amazingly, was named captain of Wales only one year later, at the age of just 20 -- an incredible vote of confidence from manager Gary Speed.
Then, tragically, Speed's untimely death later in 2011 understandably hit Ramsey hard. A grieving team had a young, inexperienced and occasionally unconfident player as their skipper.
Towards the end of 2011-12, his first full campaign as an Arsenal regular and still not completely over the Stoke incident, Ramsey was repeatedly jeered by a section of Arsenal supporters, made the scapegoat for an uninspiring campaign. Later in 2012, new Wales boss Chris Coleman decided to strip Ramsey of the captaincy, which was another significant blow.
It was an extremely difficult period for a footballer still trying to find his feet after such a serious injury. Never mind being a leader, Ramsey was simply trying to prove he was a top-division footballer.
"It was a difficult time for me, but it's important in those times never to doubt your ability, because if you start doubting yourself then you're going to go down a slippery slope -- and you never know, you can find yourself shooting down the leagues," Ramsey told ESPN FC, speaking at a New Balance boot launch.
"That was important, never doubting myself -- I always knew what I was capable of doing. It was just trying to figure out how I could do it. The boss [Arsene Wenger] always believed in me. He gave me a new contract in that period and he's always known what I could do.
"It was just a case of figuring out how to put things to the back of my mind, psychologically, with what went on with my injury. Then I quickly rediscovered my form."
Initially a technically gifted player who was comfortable on the ball and happy playing an understated role, Ramsey turned into a prolific goalscorer almost overnight. Some of his goals, particularly the volley away at Norwich in 2014 and the incredible long-range thunderbolt at Galatasaray in the Champions League that same year, have been truly spectacular, and he attributes this purely to a mental improvement.
"I've always been able to get into the box, but in the past I'd been very rash in my finishing, I wasn't clear with what I was doing in the final third. When it came to shooting, I was very rushed, I wasn't hitting the ball cleanly. Then [two seasons ago] I composed myself and was able to do it in front of goal, and I reaped the rewards from that."
In a similar manner to Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri, who also turned into goalscoring midfielders overnight at Arsenal, Ramsey simply became calmer. He simply says it came from "concentrating on hitting the ball nice and cleanly and making sure you're making good connection with it, not being so reckless in front of goal."
Ramsey admits he's started the last two campaigns determined to hit double figures in terms of goals, something he's achieved both seasons, scoring 26 overall goals in that span. But the Welshman isn't a mere midfielder-become-goalpoacher in the manner of Tim Cahill or Kevin Nolan, for example.
The most impressive thing about his 2013-14 campaign, in particular, was that Ramsey excelled in terms of both goalscoring and tackling, almost opposing concepts in football. He'd become the complete box-to-box midfielder, and he's fully aware of his statistical performance.
"I was in the top categories for quite a lot of the stats, so it's not an easy thing to try and replicate that kind of form," he says. "It's definitely not easy [physically] but I feel like that's my game, that's what I like to do -- to get up and down the pitch. Win the ball back, start moves, and try to get on the end of things as well, and finish them off.
"I get the normal stats, like tackles and pass completion and high-intensity runs, I get them after every game to see how similar they are to every game and to make sure I'm hitting the targets, or not too far away from them. And if there is a big drop, [you can work out] why."
For 2015-16, Ramsey primarily needs to stay fit, after two campaigns where he suffered from injuries. Then, he can lay claim to his favoured central role, having been shifted out to the right flank for the final months of 2014-15, with Francis Coquelin, Santi Cazorla and Mesut Ozil usually forming the midfield triangle.
"I had a few injuries which disrupted things, and it's quite difficult to get your rhythm and get your consistency, because you're stop-start and takes you a few games to get into it again," he explains.
"I much prefer playing in the centre of the park, that's where I feel comfortable. I like to be involved as much as I can in the game, and in the middle you're definitely the heartbeat of the team. When you're on the right, you can go minutes without seeing the ball, and that's a long time when you're out on the pitch."
Then comes the question of leadership. Ramsey has recovered from the disappointment of losing the Wales captaincy, but is keen to regain the armband at some point.
"Gary Speed made me captain [and] we shot up the world rankings, we were playing some good stuff, everything was going well. Then certain things happened, and it was a tough time for all of us. It went downhill a bit from there, there were a couple of bad results, and there was a lot of pressure on us all," he says.
"That was what Chris [Coleman] decided to do. It felt like he didn't want to put any more pressure on me, and he wanted to give it to Ashley Williams. That was his decision, I respect it and I certainly don't hold that against him now, because there's no point. It was definitely a disappointment but hopefully one day I can get it back."
And he holds a similar long-term goal for Arsenal, having worn the armband last summer for the first time, in a preseason friendly win over Boreham Wood.
"I've made a load of appearances now, I definitely feel one of the leaders, but I feel this group of players all have their own leadership skills. It was nice to be given the armband, even though it was just a preseason friendly, but it's something I would like to do one day, to be captain.
"It's a great honour and achievement to do that, I've had experience of doing it with my country, it would be nice to do that [for Arsenal] one day."
With or without the armband, Ramsey has come to epitomise Arsenal. His brave decision to join Arsenal ahead of Manchester United in 2008, at a time when United were European Champions, was precisely because Wenger had a reputation for developing youngsters.
"He likes to get young kids with talent and natural ability and turn them into world-class players. He's done that on many occasions in the past -- he'll continue doing that.
"His experience, knowing how to deal with [young players] is quite remarkable. He gets his satisfaction from seeing them develop as a player -- and as a person as well -- and gives them information on the pitch, and opportunities to go out there, play, and express themselves."
And, for as long as that remains a key part of Arsenal's approach, Ramsey will remain the ideal role model.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.