When he left Arsenal for Barcelona in 2011, Cesc Fabregas spoke about what the future might hold for Arsenal, particularly in the central midfield area he was vacating.
There might well have been some measure of him talking up the qualities of two young players to take the heat off himself, but he certainly sounded confident that these men could take up the mantle.
“There is not even a question over whether or not Arsenal’s midfield is in good hands,” he said.
“Jack will be the England captain inside the next two or three years, you don’t have to be a magician to work that one out. As for Aaron: his engine is unbelievable, his final ball will get better and he will be the next big star at Arsenal. They are winners and they will be amazing for the club.”
At the time Jack Wilshere was 19, Aaron Ramsey 20, and even if Fabregas was over-egging the pudding a little for his own benefit, there’s no doubt there was genuine excitement about their potential and the players they might become.
That was some time ago, however, and as we know a lot can happen in football in a short period of time, let alone almost six full seasons. Wilshere has just seen yet another campaign cut short after suffering a fractured fibula while on loan at Bournemouth, while Ramsey has failed to reach the heights that made him one of the stand-out central midfielders in the 2013-14 season, in which he scored 16 goals and a winner in the FA Cup final.
Even the fact Wilshere – once seen as an heir to Liam Brady, a home-grown gifted, left-footed midfield maestro – has spent this season on loan at Bournemouth is a sign of how his stock has fallen. Of course the injuries, most of them serious or made more so by complications, have hampered his development, but such was his insecurity about keeping his England place he chose to leave Arsenal for a club that would battle relegation rather than one whose ambition (unfulfilled as it might be) is to fight for the title.
On one very basic level, i.e to get back to match fitness, it made some vague sense, but the reality is that when you take a step backwards like that, it’s very difficult to get back to the level you were previously at.
Ramsey, meanwhile, has also suffered from injury problems, and although they haven’t been as traumatic as Wilshere’s broken legs and shredded ligaments, they have prevented him from maintaining the level he reached in that 2013-14 season.
Persistent calf and hamstring strains have seen him in and out the team, sometimes missing up to 3 or 4 months at a time, and with that comes the inability to play regularly, building rhythm and form along the way.
At times it’s hard not to wonder if these muscular issues aren’t a consequence of the terrible injury he suffered at Stoke when Ryan Shawcross snapped his leg in two. The likes of Abou Diaby and Eduardo da Silva had to endure a litany of muscle strains and aches in the wake of similar leg/ankle breaks, maybe Ramsey’s just took longer to manifest themselves.
The Welshman’s problems seem less chronic than Wilshere’s, and with two years left on his current Arsenal deal his immediate future isn’t in too much doubt. His England counterpart, however, will certainly give the Gunners a headache if he’s sidelined for another extended period.
On the one hand it’s almost impossible to sell an injured player, but it’s also very difficult to hand a new contract to him, even if he just has 12 months left on his current deal. You can’t build your midfield around a player whose availability is so limited, so at best he’d be a squad option as and when he got fit.
In both cases though, we can see that for all the talent and potential, for all the quality that somebody like Cesc Fabregas could see in both his former teammates, the football path at the top-level is very often a difficult one that leads us to places we don’t expect.