The Curious Case of Gaston Ramirez

By Aniefiok Ekpoudom

“Gaston is right up there with the best. His technique, control, use of the ball and understanding of the game is different to anyone else.” – Southampton centre back Jose Fonte

It’s an overcast February afternoon; the scarcity of fans present in a relatively unoccupied DW Stadium belies the importance of the game being played on the field. Southampton trail relegation rivals Wigan Athletic by the solitary goal and with every misdirected pass agitation amongst the away faithful swells. After a notable draw with Everton and a spirited yet ultimately fruitless performance at Old Trafford, defeat here would certainly undermine the impressive start made by new manager Mauricio Pochettino. The clash with Wigan was primed as a fixture in which credible performances manifested themselves into something more palpable; points on the board.

A goal let alone points looked unrealistic; Pochettino was animated, repeatedly gesticulating on the touchline yet his sides energetic nature had grown stale. That was until Number 10 Gaston Ramirez temporarily arose from anonymity to play a sublime reverse ball into Lallana. The captain’s shot was smartly saved but the shift in momentum was clear. It was the type of moment often unnoticed when the season is reviewed but it was important; defeat would have spelled disaster and even worse, the relegation zone.

Those few seconds perhaps encapsulated what had so far been an underwhelming season for the Uruguayan international; fleeting moments of excellence followed by large phases of obscurity. Six months prior the 22 year old six foot one playmaker had arrived on the South coast with a record price tag and even heftier expectations. Nigel Adkins quick to lavish praise on his new recruit, described him as, “a smashing little man and a quality footballer,” before hinting at the early barriers that needed hurdling, “he doesn’t know the language, but he knows football.”

The fee (rumored to be £12m) meant that expectancy trumped excitement, leading many to forget that at just twenty one years of age, Ramirez was one of the youngest players in the squad and one who would have to acclimatise to an exceedingly different culture and country. Nevertheless, Ramirez initially handled the pressure well, delivering a master class against Aston Villa before netting an early goal at Goodison Park the following week.

As fellow South American imports Oscar and Claudio Yacob continued to grow into their new environments, Ramirez began to rapidly fade. Injury, followed by bereavement only aggravated matters and although he began to play consistently, he struggled to complete 90 minutes. By his own admission the grieving period spent at home in Fray Bentos had seen ‘the tiredness double’; an issue further exacerbated by the Premier league’s intense Christmas schedule.

Nigel Adkins brushed off any assertion of fundamental fitness complications, “Obviously you’ve got to get used to it all [The Premier League];” his casual response on the matter. Unfortunately for Ramirez, the man that eventually replaced Adkins brought a lung busting footballing philosophy with him and the two would prove incompatible from the word go.

Ramirez, tall yet lanky, thin but far from athletic occupies a role that is fast becoming extinct in the modern era and one which over the course of Pochettino’s short reign has briskly disappeared from the Southampton side. Static #10’s are no longer the fashion; Sniedjer’s and Kaka’s have been replaced by Cazorla’s and Silva’s; mobility and movement have become just as imperative as technical ability and vision. Ramirez evidently possesses the later; teammate Adam Lallana labelled him as a player possessing “great ability continental flair but in spite of the compliments, the traits attributed to Cazorla and co do not presently rest in his repertoire.

The gangly playmaker may have arrived in the game five years too late and he certainly comes with a build and mentality currently unsuited to Southampton’s innovative and at times physical style of play.

Pochettino’ preference for quick turnovers necessitates swift passing and sharp movement from his attacking outlets; rapidly creating and then exploiting space is the cornerstone of his offensive philosophy. With this in mind, the problem with Ramirez becomes apparent. Desiring to receive the ball into his feet as opposed to scampering off into space to collect, automatically puts Ramirez at odds with the requests of the manager.

Defensively Ramirez has likewise fallen short; although it is not for a lack of effort on his part. Pochettino’s proactive ball winning philosophy has been well documented and during his infrequent displays Ramirez has shown a readiness to harry and press; yet it is his sluggish speed of thought which has betrayed his positive intentions.

A slow response in assisting the initial press can see the entire system collapse; lethargic reactions by Ramirez in games against Liverpool and Wigan threatened to punish the entire side. I want to think it is just him struggling to adapt to a new country and language,” Pochettino remarked; hopeful the perils of his fellow South American were teething problems and nothing more.

These issues would take time to correct; yet regrettably when summer came the Confederations Cup whisked Ramirez off to Brazil, depriving him of a sufficient preseason. Whilst the rest of the squad jetted off for physically and tactically intensive tours of Spain and Austria, Ramirez fell behind even further; still yet to experience a preseason with the club.

As October 2013 arrived little had changed and despite another eyebrow raising display in Manchester it seems the Saints were yet again destined to make the journey back along the M1 with nothing to show for their enterprise. As they went in search of an equaliser Pochettino turned to his bench and ordered Guly Do Prado; without a goal in two years, to begin his warm up.

Having not even been named in the squad, Ramirez had been left to twiddle his thumbs; to date he has yet to start a league game; making only five appearances from the bench (although a stunning volley in the League Cup reminded us of the talent bubbling in his left foot). Whilst his preseason (or lack of it) has played its role, developments in the summer suggested that the £12 million man still would have found match time difficult to come across, even if he had not jetted off to Brazil.

As of July 11th the tag of ‘record signing’ no longer resides in Ramirez’s title. In perusal of the clubs lofty ambitions Victor Wanyama and Pablo Osvaldo both checked in on the shores of the south coast for a fraction higher than the amount paid a year earlier for the South American. Whilst Wanyama staked his claim to a central midfield role it was fellow Serie A import Osvaldo who relegated Ramirez to a permanent spot on the bench.

With Rickie Lambert reaching commendable heights in his debut season, Pochettino had to look elsewhere in order to accommodate the Italian striker; eventually culminating in a change of formation. Ramirez playing as an old fashioned #10 no longer was an issue, Southampton were now playing with no #10 at all.

Therefore the man Pochettino claimed to be counting on for the upcoming season has been left in the cold. Despite a variation in formation, the tactical flexibility of Steven Davis and captain Adam Lallana have permitted the pair to carve out roles elsewhere in Pochettino’s plans; Ramirez is not as fortunate. So whilst Southampton’s Argentine manager continues to make steady inroads on the South of England, their South American boy has bizarrely played no part.

So what next for Ramirez? National team manager Oscar Taberez last month made it clear that his seat on the plane to Brazil is secure; even given his absence from the football pitch. Rumours of a return to Italy (aided by a talkative agent) have begun to crop up with increasing frequency and although these were rapidly refuted by Pochettino, it seems this unsatisfactory situation concerning both the player and the club who pay his hefty wages will come to a head in the summer; if not January.

When Ramirez arrived, several labelled the transfer as a ‘stepping stone’ yet eighteen months on unexpectedly it may be Southampton who angle for a premature move.

This piece was written by Aniefiok Ekpoudom. Comments below please.

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    Solid read
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