It is curious that the form of Arsenal’s 2013-14 Player of the Season has been discussed so little during 2014-15. Aaron Ramsey has featured in the echo chamber of Arsenal discourse of course, but the context in which he has been operating that has framed the chatter rather than his actual form. Has he improved this season? Has he gone backwards? Has he stood still? I’ve seen curiously few people offer an opinion that would fit neatly into any of those boxes.
Given the amount of discussion Ramsey has generated during his short career, maybe it is no bad thing that he has dodged the Twitter swing-o-meter as it veers haphazardly from shit to gold. I think there are a number of reasons for the lack of conversation over Ramsey’s individual performances. Like most of his teammates, Ramsey began the season slightly indifferently as the team struggled for cohesion. After last season’s goalscoring heroics, Rambo scored in Arsenal’s first two league games.
For a short while, Ramsey seemed intent on juicing this lemon for all it was worth, cooking up scores of shots on goal, no matter how unfavourable the angle. This led to Arsene Wenger rather publicly reminding him of his day job. It is unusual for Arsene to offer such plaintive public scrutiny of his own player’s flaws, but Wenger obviously knows how to plunge his tentacles into Ramsey’s id. In 2012, he publicly predicted that “once Ramsey starts scoring goals, he won’t stop.” This during a period where Aaron looked more likely to drop a platinum selling hip-hop LP than score a goal.
Ramsey straightened up and flew right. He surrendered his penchant for wild potshots when glimpsing the distant visage of an idle goalkeeper. It has taken a great deal of humility for Ramsey to so quickly re-attune his mindset to the greater good of the team. It must be difficult to submit to devolution when you have begun to establish yourself as something of a virtuoso. One of the reasons that Wenger tinkered with the shape in the early part of the season was because he wanted to promote inclusivity, ironically, largely due to Ramsey’s individual feats last season.
Whilst his purple patch was a joy to behold, his three month absence last spring almost totally castrated the team as an attacking force. In a sense, the promotion of the collective began when Robin van Persie was replaced with not one, but three attacking players in 2012. Whilst there is still a clamour for Arsenal to sign a genuine 30 goal a season striker, Wenger has spoken of the need for another 15 goal a season player. An over reliance on individuals had been the bane of post-Highbury Arsenal and when those individuals were injured or left for pastures new, it’s left the Gunners contemplating a one way ticket to shit creek.
Wenger’s vision for shared responsibilities in front of goal has paid off this season, the likes of Alexis, Giroud and Ramsey have almost adopted a ‘shift’ rota in the scoring stakes. However, as the team adjusted to the beat of a new drum, much of the debate centred round whether or not Wilshere and Ramsey were becoming the new Gerrard and Lampard. I suppose that this is another reason that Aaron’s performances have so rarely been talked about in isolation this season, as his compatibility, or lack thereof, with Wilshere became the row du jour on the internets. As I wrote in my column on Wilshere a month or so ago, I think it’s a bit premature to write off that partnership. I also think to pinpoint it as the root of the team’s early season dysfunction is simplistic.
They were certainly not the only two players adapting to one another in that period. At Old Trafford on Sunday, the pair dovetailed very nicely in the centre when Wilshere came on for the final twenty minutes. Whether that cameo can be extrapolated over a more sustained spell remains to be seen of course. Injury also made it difficult to evaluate Ramsey’s level of performance in the first half of the campaign, with his calf seemingly detonating every time he broke into a gentle jog. This undoubtedly disrupted his rhythm until very recently.
Ramsey affects a very demure demeanour when interviewed, but beneath that magnolia veneer, he possesses a steely character. Being maimed by Shawcross did not affect him. Fronting up the Welsh F. in the aftermath of Gary Speed’s death (before being very publicly stripped of the Wales captaincy by a grudge harbouring Chris Coleman) did not trouble him and periods of indifferent form and the fury they have generated have not bothered him either. A series of calf injuries can lead a player to stop trusting his body, to which the decline of Fernando Torres stands testament.
A player as bombastic as Ramsey would be seriously hindered were he to cease trusting his body, but his calf injuries have not altered his approach. He has managed to continue to play without Wenger’s fabled handbrake, which is truly commendable given the travails his body has borne. Recently, he has been asked to play from the right flank and this is probably another reason that evaluation of his performance has struggled to germinate. The experiment to play him on the right has yielded mixed results I think it is fair to say. He performed excellently there against Liverpool in April and scored important goals against Burnley and Hull from that berth.
James from @gunnerblog compared him to Freddie Ljungberg in a recent Arsecast Extra and I think there is mileage in that comparison, even if his preferred position is in the centre of midfield. Many point to how he influenced the game at Old Trafford when moved to the centre and there is certainly some truth to that. But I think his influence was beginning to increase prior to the switch. He nearly scored from the right when Alexis found his beautifully timed run behind Rojo and he played a beauty of a pass into Giroud from the right touchline.
Ultimately, Ramsey is a risk taker. It’s his biggest strength and his most frustrating flaw. When those risks come off, he’s a marvel to watch, but when they don’t, he can frustrate. His pass for Walcott on Sunday (which brought about the own goal) and his wonder goal against Galatasaray were both products of risk and of belief in his ability to achieve the difficult. But occasionally, you get the impression that he still wants six or seven touches when two will do and sometimes he tries too hard to force the issue, as I think he did against Swansea last week. I think this season that his decision making has become a little more judicious, as one would expect with experience.
This is where his bravery will be a great servant to him. Experience is accumulated through risk, it leads to good judgement further down the line. Ramsey’s willingness to try will give him a more rounded idea of when it’s prudent to attempt the audacious and when it isn’t. Dennis Bergkamp is the greatest modern example of this balance between technical proficiency and instinctiveness. I think Ramsey has improved his final ball and that is a very encouraging development for a midfield player. He played a couple of beautiful through balls on Sunday and a lovely slide rule pass for Walcott on Wednesday.
Good players analyse their game and identify areas to improve. Last season, he improved both his tackling and his finishing, so if he is scrutinising the creative side of his game this season, that can only be positive. He has shown the maturity to understand the team’s objectives over his own personal glory and I think he’s slowly becoming a more complete player as a result. His goalscoring return is still entirely respectable this season, with 9 goals and 7 assists in 34 appearances.
He is not quite as noticeable as he was last season, but having stayed fit for the last three months or so, I think there’s evidence we’re moving gradually towards an even more complete midfield player.
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