Very few Arsenal players can claim to have improved as individuals during this campaign. The obvious dysfunction of the team has had a debilitating effect on the form of single players. At times, it is difficult to tell how good some of the newer players actually are, given the tactical chaos have they been plunged into. It feels like a harsh environment in which to express oneself- conversely for an Arsene Wenger team, where the emphasis is so heavily weighted towards improvisation and self-determination.
However, Aaron Ramsey is one squad member who can claim that his game has progressed with some legitimacy. Now aged 27, he is moving towards his prime years, which are so called because they marry a high physical level with experience and maturity. Maturity is a feat that has become more and more apparent in the Welshman’s game this season.
He has always been in possession of that most prized trait for a midfielder- a good engine. We also know that getting into the penalty area is his favourite thing to do on a football pitch. He hearts it emphatically. To the point that, at times, he has ignored the fact that he has a lot of other useful attributes and sacrificed them at the altar of his forward running.
At the end of the 2012-13 season, he formed an excellent double pivot alongside Mikel Arteta where he largely showcased his defensive qualities. With Arteta directing operations, Ramsey used his stamina to tigerishly snuff out opponent’s attacks. Then, during 2013-14, his game blossomed in an attacking sense with 16 goals from 30 starts.
This breakout season actually harmed a game a little during the 2014-15 campaign, where the manager took the uncharacteristic step of criticising his over eagerness to get forward. “You always have to come back to basics. What is my job? Midfielder, win the ball and give a good pass. If you play like you believe that you have to score, every time you want to be in the box you forget a little bit of the basics of the job.”
His forward running became less discriminate and, as a result, his goals actually dried up. He lost the element of surprise. Late arrival in the box is the calling card of the goalscoring midfielder, but often Ramsey was up with the lark and at the front of the queue when it came to penalty area check in. This season, he has become far more judicious and picked his moments.
The result, at time of writing, is 8 goals and 8 assists from 26 starts and he is on course for his best goal return since 2013-14. His display in Milan was the picture of moderation. He formed a tight double pivot with Granit Xhaka and helped screen the defence, picking the ball up from his centre halves before recycling the ball effectively. When his moment came in first half stoppage time, he broke free and ghosted into the Milan area without detection.
Back in August, Ramsey earned censure for his part in Stoke City’s winner at the Bet365 Stadium. He broke forward too early, so when Arsenal lost possession, a crater had been left in midfield which Stoke galloped through to score their winner. That Arsenal lost the ball as he made a forward run was unfortunate. But the crux of the error was that he broke so early that he simply moved into a position where he was easily marked in any case. Even had Arsenal retained the ball, he wasn’t adding value to the attack. He appears to have learned from this aberration.
Ramsey and Xhaka form a kind of unorthodox ‘spoke and wheel’ midfield. Often, Ramsey has moderated his game defensively during the first 45 minutes of encounters. He and Xhaka play as dual number 6s, swapping positions so that they rotate the responsibility of collecting from the centre halves. This is to create havoc with the game plan of the opposition. Deep lying playmakers are often man marked by hard working number 10s in this day and age.
By swapping roles, Ramsey and Xhaka try to throw the opposition off the scent and help push Arsenal up the pitch, where they can impose their game. One of Ramsey’s greatest qualities is his absolute cast iron will to force his game onto the opposition. He is a brave, high risk high reward player. Some supporters have trouble with this approach because supporters, by nature, are naturally nervous and cautious about their teams.
Likewise, his composure can often be interpreted as recklessness by some supporters. This is one of the reasons Wojciech Szczesny split opinion so noticeably. Some people like a risk taker on a football pitch, others don’t. Ramsey and Xhaka, though unorthodox, subscribe to Wenger’s central tenet of midfield play.
“When you come to the ball we are always under pressure. I am comfortable with that; although sometimes it leaves us open in the middle of the park. We want to play in the other half of the pitch and, therefore, we have to push our opponents back. But my philosophy is not to be in trouble, but to fool the opponent into trouble.”
In the second half of matches, Xhaka and Ramsey revert to a “4 and 8” shape and this is where the Welshman can come into his own. He takes up advanced positions in pockets of space that leave opponents with a choice to make. They either desert their shape to pick him up, or stay in formation and leave him free. Arsene invested so much money in Mustafi and Xhaka partially because of their ability to pass through the lines. Ramsey and Özil are great at taking up positions in that hinterland between the opposition’s defence and midfield.
This is why Wenger likes and trusts Ramsey so much, he always, always looks to impose his game, which in turn helps Arsenal to impose theirs. His improved forward runs have resulted in a respectable goalscoring return this season. Goals against Everton and Swansea show him arriving late on the scene, but they also demonstrate his improved finishing. His finishing is far more finessed this season, whereas previously he has been guilty of trying to burst the ball with many of his attempts.
He serves an important support role for Arsenal’s strikers. Lacazette’s goals totally dried up when Aaron was injured in December. Last week, I wrote about my concerns of a chasm developing between Aubameyang and his supporting cast. Ramsey’s penetrative running can help polyfilla that potential crack.
Without Rambo, Arsenal can be pushed too far back by opponents, which has a cumulative effect. It means that Özil and Mkhitaryan drift deeper and deeper in search of the ball, which cuts the umbilical cord between them and Aubameyang, who resolutely remains in the final third of the pitch at all times. We saw this in the recent defeat at Brighton. Ramsey’s presence pushes opponents backwards and helps to create space for the likes of Mesut and Mkhi.
And yet, injuries have remained a frustratingly regular bedfellow for the midfielder. He was spared the additional workload of a European group stage this season, yet Ramsey has still missed many games with soft tissue injuries. With his contract reaching a critical stage, Arsenal have to decide how much of a risk they want to take on his physical capabilities- not least because a new deal would take him into his 30s.
Mesut Özil’s megabucks contract will have a “rising tide” effect on other key deals and while Ramsey is unlikely to demand total parity with the German, he will surely look to be in the same postcode, fiscally speaking. His explosiveness is one of his biggest strengths and, almost literally, his achilles heel. Arsenal’s midfield really needs to be burned to the ground and totally reconstructed.
On one hand, Ramsey is a saleable asset that can help kick-start that refurbishment. On the other, Arsenal don’t have many convincing players in the squad in the 25-30 age bracket. It’s a conundrum for the club- assuming Ramsey even wants to stay. But his Arsenal future will almost certainly be decided in the summer. For now, the Welshman is one of the few players in the current team on an upward trajectory.
Renowned Arsenal historians Andy Kelly and Mark Andrews and I have written a book about the tumultuous early years of Arsenal Football Club covering the period 1886 – 1893. ‘Royal Arsenal- Champions of the South’ is available for pre-order here.