It was billed as the Eden Hazard show: Belgium’s global star was back in Lille, the north-eastern French town where he made his name, a stone’s throw from the Belgian border.
Instead, the Euro 2016 quarter-final between Wales and Belgium was dominated not by the number 10 in blue, but in red.
Aaron Ramsey produced the finest performance of his career on that unforgettable night as Wales achieved the greatest result in their history, fighting back from a goal down to win 3-1 and reach the semi-finals of a major tournament for the first time.
“That Belgium game was a historic moment for us, for Wales,” Ramsey said this week. “Obviously, that’s going to live in people’s memories for a long, long time. We started a bit shaky, they scored a screamer, but we settled down and played some unbelievable stuff. That was definitely a great night.”
It was certainly the greatest individual display Ramsey had ever delivered. He created five goalscoring chances in the first half alone, more than any other player, and ended the game with two assists – the first time a British player had done so at the Euros since David Beckham for England against Portugal 16 years earlier.
He also picked up a yellow card – almost literally, since he was punished for a deliberate handball – that meant he was suspended for the semi-finals. It was such a brutal blow to Wales’ hopes of beating Portugal that fans unsuccessfully petitioned UEFA to rescind it prior to their 2-0 defeat.
We have not seen Ramsey play at an international tournament since. Nor, indeed, have we seen him reach such a level of performance in the past five years. So, what can we expect from him at Euro 2020?
‘Every international team would love a player like Aaron’
The Belgium game was the zenith of a brilliant tournament for Ramsey, one in which he was directly involved in half of Wales’ 10 goals from group stage to final four.
His two assists in the quarter-final, a corner for Ashley Williams’ equaliser and a sublime touch and cross for that Hal Robson-Kanu turn and finish, took him to four for the tournament, a joint-record at the Euros along with Hazard in 2016 and Ljubinko Drulovic in 2000.
After creating 23 chances in qualifying, more than any other Wales player, Ramsey built on those standards at the finals in that roving role assigned to him by Chris Coleman. He created 15 chances at Euro 2016, a tally beaten by only five players, and at an average of just over three per 90 minutes. Seven of those chances were created following carries – a run with the ball of more than five metres – which was second only to Hazard (10) among midfielders.
Ramsey was top six for passes into the penalty area (40) and touches in the opponents’ box (16), with six of his 10 shots hitting the target, the highest rate of any player to reach double figures for attempts. Yet there was so much to admire about Ramsey’s less glamourous work, too: he attempted the same number of tackles as N’Golo Kante (12) and averaged 14.9 duels per 90 minutes. Among midfielders to play in at least five games, only two posted fractionally better numbers, the highest being Paul Pogba on 15.1.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) June 11, 2016
Joe Ledley, a team-mate of Ramsey from their teenage years at Cardiff City to that famous night in Lille, knows exactly what the Juventus man brings.
“He’s a special player who will drift around midfield,” Ledley told Stats Perform. “He’s an opposition midfielder’s nightmare because he will chase, he’ll go behind them and then he’ll come short.
“Against Belgium, he was just flowing, against quality players as well and that just proves how good he is. That’s why he deserves to be at a team like Juventus and hopefully, he’ll play a little bit more.
“For me, he was probably one of our best players at the Euros. As an outsider looking in, without Aaron, they’re not as good. Every international team would love a player like Aaron, and we’re blessed to have him. The players will love working with him because he’s such a good player and links up the play from midfield and helps out by doing the dirty work as well.
“Hopefully, he can just stay fit and we can see him again in the Euros and see how well he does.”
‘It’s been quite a challenging time’
Ramsey started 34 times for Arsenal in all competitions prior to the Euros. It remains the highest number he has managed in a single season in his club career.
Injury problems stopped Ramsey from consistently hitting top form for the Gunners. Despite 64 goals in 369 appearances, including an FA Cup final winner against Hull City in 2014, he never quite became a fan favourite at Emirates Stadium as he struggled to string regular runs of games together.
Those problems have continued at Juventus, whom he joined on a free transfer two years ago after accepting a contract offer reported by some to be worth £400,000 per week. Further injuries, along with changes in coaches and systems, have not helped his cause; six goals and five assists in 33 starts over two seasons is a modest return for a player of Ramsey’s calibre and rumoured wages.
The problems have manifested for Wales, too: Ramsey has played in just 19 of their 44 games since Euro 2016 and missed training on Thursday, just 48 hours out from their opening game against Switzerland.
“It’s been quite a challenging time over the last couple of seasons,” said Ramsey, who has employed his own personal fitness team to get ready for Euro 2020. “Many factors and changes that I haven’t been used to.
“I’ve got my own team around me who are focused on me, to get myself into the best possible shape. Obviously, football is a team sport and a lot of the time it is about the team and everybody doing the same things, when maybe some players need a bit more attention.
“So, I take it into my own hands really and I have the right people around me to try to come up with the best possible plan for me to get myself back into a place where I am feeling good and confident again.”
Confidence and form invariably go hand in hand. Ramsey exuded such belief five years ago that even Hazard wilted in his shadow at Stade Pierre-Mauroy, and his place in UEFA’s team of the tournament seemed secure even as he left the pitch knowing he would not be involved in the next game.
Not many predict Wales can match their achievements in France but, with Ramsey fit and firing alongside Gareth Bale, Ledley is not ruling out a few surprises.
“I think Bale has missed Aaron quite a lot because he’s been struggling with injury,” he said. “Those two, when they’re on their game, they’re unstoppable.”
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