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Sacrificial Ram

It’s fair to say that Aaron Ramsey’s relationship with Arsenal fans has been complicated since his arrival eight years ago. His stock has fluctuated, subject to constant, dizzying revisions. At this moment in time, you could probably allocate him the “divides opinion” tag, shared by many of his colleagues. (Hi Theo, Per, Olivier and Alex!) Recently, the Geiger counter is detecting increasing disturbance where Aaron is concerned, in the endless background noise of Arsenal opinion.

Arsene Wenger has not really built teams conducive to his strengths since his standout 2013-14 campaign. There was the ill-fated Ramsey – Wilshere axis at the outset of the 2014-15 season, as Wenger sought to cram one more creative body into the team to assist Mesut Özil. The combination proved jarring however. At the beginning of 2015, the manager stumbled on the Coqzorla pairing, with Ramsey stationed out wide, which seemed to work well enough.

Though it was not without its flaws, as we saw in successive shutouts at home against Sunderland and Swansea last May. The Coqzorla pivot takes care of the ball pretty well and is well suited to matches where the Gunners are happy to cede possession, but is a little static when faced with 10 man defences. Ramsey’s driving forward runs solve the latter issue, but alongside the likes of Flamini and Coquelin, Arsenal lack the ball players to coax the best of Ramsey’s qualities.

Coqzorla was heavily reliant on Ramsey’s energy and diligence on the right hand side, as he was able to move infield and create a midfield three, whilst also offering support for Arsenal’s forward line. Since Coquelin and Cazorla were wiped out in the great central midfield plague of winter 2015, Ramsey has not been able to count on this sort of administrative load bearer from wide positions. Many of Arsene’s tactical problems would be solved if football were a 12 a side sport.

Since moving back into central midfield, his preferred position, Ramsey has coped well with very unfavourable circumstances. From the right, he had a high workload, but one that mainly relied on his energy levels. He provided backup for the midfield duo and the front three. Now his duties have increased significantly, they are central in every sense of the word. Ramsey’s move into the centre has seen the supporting pillars enjoyed by Coquelin and Cazorla melt away like butter.

On the right, Arsenal have used an out of form Oxlade-Chamberlain and a competent, yet hardly elite option in Joel Campbell. Neither are the ball players that a midfielder with Ramsey’s qualities needs to flourish. He has also had to deal with underperforming partners in the centre. Mathieu Flamini is willing, but limited. Which has meant that Ramsey has had to help the Frenchman cut his meat. It’s a task he has been more willing to undertake than people credit him for.

In his last four appearances, Ramsey has hit the mark with 87% of the 297 passes that he has attempted, won 2/3 of his 21 tackles, making 9 interceptions and 39 ball recoveries. When Flamini mindlessly got himself booked in the early exchanges of the Bournemouth match (and he was fortunate that it was only a booking), Ramsey dropped even deeper to ease the Frenchman’s workload. The lack of a ball player beside him and even to his left and right, means that the Welshman is toiling in a team not at all suited to his attributes.

There are varying degrees of mitigation for injuries to Rosicky, Cazorla and Wilshere (though the identities of two of those players offer little surprise), but the lack of a ball playing defensive midfielder is a sizeable hole in the current squad. It’s pretty obvious that neither player nor manager considered Ramsey a long term option as a technical counterbalance from the right, so not having a midfield partner tailored to Ramsey’s qualities is somewhat surprising.

Wenger gave up on Mikel Arteta as any kind of option quite early in the season, so he must have harboured doubts over the captain’s ability to contribute during the summer. The return of Coquelin should ease things a little for Ramsey, but Coquelin is still feeling his way into the team and has struggled to hit his 2015 watermark. Coq averaged 2.7 tackles and 2.3 interceptions per game prior to injury and those numbers have dropped to 1.3 tackles and 1.0 interceptions per game since his return. Ramsey’s significant workload has yet to reduce.

Since the harum scarum 3-3 draw with Liverpool, Aaron has reigned his attacking instincts in. Arsenal’s most frequent passing combination that evening saw Petr Cech finding Giroud, so it stood to reason that Ramsey offered Olivier some support. I think it’s fair to say that Ramsey did not get the balance right at Anfield, yet none of the 3 goals Arsenal shipped were a result of his overcommitting and he did score. Ramsey has been more discerning since, which partially explains why he hasn’t added to his goal tally (though he has been guilty of some poor finishing in that time).

Scoring isn’t something his teammates have done a lot of since that evening either. As I wrote last week, Arsenal have set up tent on the left hand side, encouraging Ramsey, Giroud, Alexis and Özil to create a quadrant in that corner of the pitch. In lieu of creative / ball carrier types, Arsenal have been trying to funnel the ball to Alexis and Ramsey has formed a key part of that supply line.

So in short, Ramsey has been expected to simultaneously support an underperforming central partner, without the security blanket of a “ball cradler” to his right and has been expected to be a key pivot over on the left hand side of the Gunners’ attack. He is doing three jobs at once in a network that does not service any of his own strengths. It is a workload that he has borne very well, in my opinion.

There are valid criticisms of course. Over the Christmas period, there were games where the Welshman was not mindful enough of the defensive limitations of his partner. Arsenal have a selection of “streaky” goal scorers, such as Giroud, Alexis, Theo Walcott and Ramsey himself; and none of those players are enjoying a purple patch in front of goal at the moment. There is a perception that Ramsey can overcomplicate things, which is not an entirely unjust criticism.

That said, I think people become too overwrought about what they perceive to be “showboating.” Ramsey certainly likes a backheel or flick and many supporters have a distaste for this, regarding it as ostentatious. But I think many miss the rationale behind this kind of ball movement. Often a backheel or flick is the quickest and most logical way to deliver the ball, if you’re slightly off balance or not facing the direction that you want the ball to travel. It normally catches the opponents off balance too. Ramsey certainly has been guilty of over-elaborating in this manner on occasion, but not as often as people perceive.

He is currently minding a workload that has not been asked of any other Arsenal player this season. It is true that the team has relied on Özil’s genius heavily (though his form has dropped lately, as the team’s dysfunction has increased), but the German has greater freedom and has been asked largely to do what he enjoys outside of the tactical structure of the team. Ramsey meanwhile, is acting as a multi-functional polyfilla.

He’s feeding and dressing the kids, cleaning their clothes, working 50 hours a week without so much as the occasional bunch of flowers in return. Despite the lack of tactical doting for his own strengths, Aaron is performing well and the team always misses him on the rare occasions that he is afforded rest. The Dinamo Zagreb away match offers a decent insight into an inverse universe. Ramsey was rested that night, Arteta partnered Cazorla, a partnership not designed to bring the best of either player.

To the right, Chamberlain was at his flakiest in that match and we all remember how these mismatches translated on the pitch. For Ramsey, that kind of inconvenient environment has been a consistent feature of life. Rambo wanted to play more centrally and to undertake greater responsibility and he got it in spades. Most midfielders would melt in that climate, that Ramsey is still performing quite well is a much more impressive feat than it looks.

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Tim Stillman

Tim Stillman

Bedroom blogger and professional Arsenal fan. Victory through sanctimony.