After just one season in Italy, Aaron Ramsey is on the move again as Juventus signaled this week that the midfielder is available for transfer. The club cite financial concerns due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic as the reasoning behind this decision.
Fans will remember that Ramsey never managed more than a bit role during his stint in Turin. Across 24 games for Juventus, Ramsey played a total of 1,097 minutes—which comes out to an average of just 45 minutes per appearance. For comparison: Ramsey averaged 67.8 minutes per game for Cardiff City, and 64.9 minutes per game for Arsenal. For even more context: super-sub Olivier Giroud averaged 49.6 minutes per game in his appearances for Chelsea.
Numbers lie all the time, of course. But when it comes to dozen substitute appearances for a £400,000/week salary, the numbers just don’t add up—not even if you’re Juventus FC, the sharkiest shark in the Italian football shark tank, free-wheeling masters of the free transfer, making it rain while rolling through title after domestic title. Which is a long way of saying: of course Juventus were going to let Ramsey go. The writing’s been on the wall for months.
And that brings us to the hot topic of the day: should Arsenal bring Aaron Ramsey home? Put it another way: should Arsenal splash some cash to re-sign a player that they let go on a free transfer last year? Where’s the line between quitting while you’re ahead, and swallowing the price of your past mistakes?
What makes the heart grow fonder
One can’t help but think that at least part of today’s debate is motivated by the second-hand guilt that fans felt at the way Arsenal let Ramsey go.
You may have heard of the behavior known as Basking In Reflected Glory (BIRG, or BIRGing). It’s one of the basic behaviors of sports fans: boasting about your chosen team’s successes and making that joy your own. The converse of BIRGing is CORFing—or Cutting Off Reflected Failure, as you might do with a particularly obnoxious relative or, say, institutionalized racism, which makes you look bad by association. The CORFing mechanism doesn’t operate quite the same for sports fans, however: fans tend to feel their team’s disappointments just as personally as they do the glories. Go sideways from this theoretical framework and you can see how such identification with a club, and with a player as beloved as Ramsey, makes Drowning In Reflected Shame just as plausible.
The circumstances of Ramsey’s departure from Arsenal were less than ideal, to say the least. Those months of rumors and recrimination never gave us a satisfying answer of just what the hell Ramsey was asking that was so unacceptable that Arsenal would rescind a contract offer and let one of their most talismanic players walk away for free. “He was asking for too much money,” is the line that most will adopt when defending the club’s actions. Which seems fair enough, until you factor in the opportunity costs involved in releasing a player of Ramsey’s quality—not the least of which the immense financial blow that is missing out on Champions League for yet another season—the money argument looks short-sighted at best and an outright lie at worst.
No, there’s no guarantee that Ramsey’s presence would have secured a top four finish for Arsenal. But the absence of a hardworking, goalscoring, turns-up-for-big-games-like-clockwork midfielder has certainly not helped Arsenal in their quest for redemption following Unai Emery’s ill-fated tenure.
Fiscal responsibility, and other lies Ivan told you
Much of the blame (if we’re assigning blame) will fall to the coach’s system, and to the board and owner’s anemic interpretation of ambition. Balancing the books and fiscal responsibility are well and good in the realm of theory. In the realm of reality, professional men’s football at Arsenal’s level is a game like Monopoly, i.e. where money is fake. For all that he operates like one, Stan Kroenke isn’t some penny-pinching homemaker trying to stretch a stimulus paycheck as far as it’ll go.
At the Premier League level, spending money generates value in and of itself—as the examples of Chelsea and Manchester City have demonstrated. Even if expenditure doesn’t generate on-field success, marquee signings and naked financial ambition elevate the club’s brand. The justification for handing Neymar or Eden Hazard a blank check is not that they will win you everything in sight (though they’ll probably help). Sporting success isn’t guaranteed, no matter how much is spent, but brand success ties directly into that ability to trot out all-star lineups and bang the publicity drum. Real Madrid have been doing it for decades.
I won’t argue that this should be Arsenal’s modus operandi, because I disagree with it on every level imaginable. This is just to say: arguments that begin and end with “Arsenal can’t afford to do that, financially” hold about as much water as a Danaïdean sieve. It’s absurd to claim the club should be some model of self-sustaining, responsible capitalism while operating in a decidedly irresponsible capitalist football framework, from which the owner himself has profited so immeasurably.
Responsible, self-sustaining operations would dictate policies in the direction of member-based democratic decision-making, horizontal ownership structure, and investment in every level of the club: not just the highly-paid executives, players, and coaches, but also match day workers, support staff, media managers and interns, not to mention the women’s side. Talking about financial responsibility while ignoring the unjust economic practices that underpin the club’s business is like protecting your hardwood floors from water damage while the house is on fire.
Aaron Ramsey 2020?
So where does that leave us with regards to a potential Ramsey homecoming?
It’s not news to anyone that Arsenal have been hurt by the lack of goal scoring ability in midfield. Whatever else you might say about his ability or lack thereof, Ramsey has always been able to make the late runs and provide that additional goal threat. That, combined with Ramsey’s identification with the club—and fans’ intense identification with him—makes a sound case for bringing him back on board.
But bringing Ramsey back, and for a net loss at that, will amount to nothing less than a public admission by Arsenal that they made a huge error letting him go in the first place. Not much has changed at the executive level since Ramsey left, so the club won’t even have that excuse to fall back on. This is not a case of a young player going to another club to get some playing experience and prove himself worthy, before returning in glory to the club he wanted to play for all along (see: Philipp Lahm’s loan spell at VfB Stuttgart from 2003 to 2005). Ramsey proved all he needed to prove during his time at Arsenal. He established himself as a fan favorite, a consummate team player, and a reliable constant during even the most turbulent times. The only thing that would be proven by this potential return would be just how badly Ramsey’s 2018/19 contract negotiations were mismanaged.
Then there’s the question of whether Ramsey even wants to come back. Arsenal can’t offer him Champions League football. Arsenal can’t offer him the security or ambition that multitudes of other clubs—several of whom even have the budget to secure his services—could offer. What Arsenal are coming to the negotiating table with (if there is a table) is the kind of nostalgia that leaves so many ex-Gunners reminiscing about their time in North London. From Alexander Hleb naming leaving Arsenal as his biggest mistake, to Cesc Fabregas working overtime to rehab his image as an Arsenal legend despite dishing out the biggest betrayal the fans have seen in decades—there are some players that, for better or worse, just can’t let Arsenal go.
Is Aaron Ramsey one of those players? The romantic would like to believe yes. The pragmatist says Ramsey is so notoriously reserved that there isn’t enough data to draw a conclusion. Ramsey isn’t like Wojciech Szczęsny, whose feelings on Arsenal are well documented: “The thing that sticks out not playing for Arsenal is, although when you lose it hurts just as much, when you win it doesn’t taste as good.” While Szczęsny continued to assert his identification with Arsenal—in banterous Instagram messages and heart-felt interview quotes—Ramsey has hardly mentioned Arsenal since his departure. (Notable exception: reposting his own “sit down he said” photo on Instagram, a year after his last North London Derby.)
Arsene Wenger once said of Fabregas’ transfer to FC Barcelona that it was “an affair of the heart.” The decision to pass on Fabregas, once he left Barcelona, however, was a matter of practicality: by then, the Arsenal team was well on its way to evolving past the set-up built around one midfielder. Ramsey doesn’t hold the same position as Fabregas, tactically or emotionally. But Arsenal are also not the same team that turned down a former captain in 2014. With the departures of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Kieran Gibbs, Jack Wilshere, Carl Jenkinson, Aaron Ramsey, and Alex Iwobi in recent years, something of an emotional core has been gutted. There are arguments to be made for the relative efficacy of any of these players—but there can be no argument that they were a constant source of pride and identification for the fans. I’d argue that that kind of feeling is near priceless.
The realist in me is not holding out much hope for a homecoming this summer, whatever Juventus’ and Ramsey’s asking price. It’s doubtful that the same Arsenal board that let Ramsey walk in the first place would be willing to admit fault and ask him back, as much as the romantic in every fan would like to see a happy resolution, a fix-it of sorts to a bittersweet farewell.