It might be apparent because I support and write about them, but Arsenal seem to have had a steady stream of players that divide opinion over the years. More than most clubs it seems, though this could of course be a product of confirmation bias. Theo Walcott, Abou Diaby, Per Mertesacker, Mikel Arteta, Olivier Giroud, Wojciech Szczesny, David Ospina and Francis Coquelin are all players that have been described very generously or else dismissed readily, depending on who you speak to.
Aaron Ramsey is very much a paid up member of this not so exclusive club. Ramsey’s Arsenal career has been very interesting because he has journeyed through several stages of football’s Kubler-Ross like rating system. We’ve had the fresh faced potential phase, the outpouring of sympathy after some grunter from Stoke snapped his leg in two, the “death threats on twitter every time he is announced in the starting XI” phase to the apotheosis stage after his breakout year and FA Cup Final winner in 2013-14.
The difficulty is that his trajectory has not remained linear. He has not been able to maintain the level he showed during that purple patch three seasons ago and lives in a kind of purgatory. Arsenal fans tend to differ wildly on the reasons for that. I would identify myself in the ‘the team has not been set up to get the best out of him’ camp, broadly speaking. However, there remains the lingering feeling that he still has not carved out his niche at Arsenal, despite the fact that Arsene Wenger very obviously has a lot of faith in him.
The good news for Ramsey is that Arsenal’s midfield is a lump of squidgy clay. The Gunners’ had a fairly settled line up during September and October, but natural attrition has set in. The likes of Giroud, Xhaka and Ramsey have remained on a leash to this point of the season, for different reasons- though all were significantly involved in the European Championships. Now they are ready to be unleashed, which is just as well because they will be needed as the fixture list begins to compact. Some of the more regrettable attrition has occurred in Santi Cazorla’s achilles tendons, but this undoubtedly opens the door for Ramsey.
Without this injury, it would have been unjustifiable to drop Cazorla, given his importance and the consistency of his performances. With Cazorla out of the way, Ramsey’s path is a little clearer. However, as Blogs himself suggested last week, Ramsey is going to have to undergo a journey of self-discovery to cement his place. Last season, an injury to Cazorla afforded the Welshman an extended run in his favoured central midfield berth. Alas, he was left to partner Mathieu Flamini in a combination that was about as complementary as mushrooms and milkshake.
In Granit Xhaka and Mohammed Elneny, Ramsey, potentially, now has a pair of ball players at his side, which gives him an opportunity to build the sort of fruitful partnership that he previously enjoyed with Mikel Arteta. It is difficult to believe that Wenger did not buy Elneny and Xhaka with Ramsey in mind- both are a much more natural fit for him than either Cazorla or Wilshere. But Arsene seems reluctant to take that step towards Ramsey by playing him with a more complementary partner, such as Elneny or Xhaka. Ramsey and Coquelin is only marginally more functional than a Ramsey and Flamini axis.
Santi has become a mainstay because he is important offensively and defensively. During this calendar year, @7amkickoff has described Aaron Ramsey as a striker in all but name on many occasions. Following the opening day defeat to Liverpool, Tim wrote, “Note that I didn’t mention Aaron Ramsey as part of the Arsenal midfield. He really wasn’t. He rarely is. He loves to play as a forward. He’s not a “Lampard”. He’s not a “#10”. He’s a striker.
“He had zero tackles and zero interceptions along with zero through balls and zero key passes. He is like Falcao, a player who only passes so that he can bomb forward and try to collect the return pass. He is not a creative midfielder. He doesn’t drop to collect the ball. He is not a midfielder. He once was. He’s not anymore.” Against PSG, we saw progress in this respect, the Welshman led the way in ball recoveries, tackles, successful passes and take ons. But without a line breaking passer in the team, Arsenal struggled to service Özil and Alexis, their two best players and Arsenal’s build up play suffered as a result.
At the beginning of the 2014-15 season, Wenger talked about Ramsey focusing on the basics of his game, pointedly saying, “A midfielder is a player who defends well, attacks well and keeps his priorities right. He’s not a goalscorer, so he has not to be obsessed by that. I just want him to do his job well. The goals are the consequence of the quality of his game. I don’t believe that he has to be obsessed by that.” This is where Ramsey has to keep moderating his game if he wants to establish himself at the heart of Arsenal’s midfield. Last night was a good start in that respect, but he needs a more suitable partner.
Ramsey has the attributes to be a complete midfielder, but he needs to continue to reconnect with the basics he was observing so well during that wonderful 2013-14 campaign. In the 2-0 win over Marseilles at the Emirates in November 2013, he won nine tackles. Yet in 2015-16, Ramsey was dribbled past 2.1 times per game on average. We know he can sharpen up on those details because we have seen him do it before. We saw a glimpse of it last night.
Rambo has been very outspoken about his distaste for playing from the flanks. From the right, he is basically given a free role, license to operate as a support striker and extra midfield body all at the same time. It’s actually a role that suits his more attacking instincts and it’s the role that Alex Iwobi has made his own this season, albeit from the left. With Özil nominally part of the midfield three, Arsenal cannot afford another central player that lacks off ball rigour.
If Ramsey does not enjoy this free role because he wants to play as a central midfielder, he is going to have to keep those instincts reigned in a touch. The conditions will become more favourable for him, assuming that Arsene remembers that he bought Granit Xhaka. If Wenger does not think Ramsey and Xhaka can play together, then I am at a bit of a loss as to why he paid so much money for him. Of course, there is a devil’s advocate argument for selling Ramsey at the end of the season. He’s 25, very highly rated, seems very open to a move abroad and, to this point, just has not properly clicked in Arsenal’s system.
With his stock pretty high and Arsenal’s coffers seemingly directed into other key contracts rather than transfers at the moment, a Ramsey sale could generate some cash for the wide playmaker the Gunners need to complete their attack. Interestingly, he is in an identical contract position to Mesut Özil and their futures could be intertwined. If the German fails to sign on, Ramsey might lustfully eye up his number 10 spot. If Mesut signs on the dotted line, Aaron could conclude that it’s time to move to a club that can accommodate his strengths more easily.
I have to say that I would not be in favour of that myself, not least given Cazorla’s age and apparent achilles issues. I think Jack Wilshere’s decision to leave the club on loan was an error, largely because the midfield seems so malleable at the moment. Throughout the spine of the team, Mustafi has been inducted into the centre of defence and Alexis has established himself as a centre forward. Wenger now has some leeway to reshape his midfield and Ramsey has an excellent opportunity to make a giant handprint on it before the cement sets.
The Coqzorla partnership underwent a subtle evolution when Coquelin began playing higher up the pitch, pressing and harrying opponents into turnovers closer to their own goal. If Ramsey observed this well, he might reason that he could perform the same job, while certainly adding a lot more to the subsequent counterattack in the event that a turnover is forced. Hopefully he will get a chance to build an understanding with a complementary partner and start fulfilling his potential again. Ramsey undoubtedly has the ability and the attributes, the question now is whether he has the wherewithal.
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