Consistent fitness, complementary teammates and a change in system have contributed to the Welshman putting in his best run of form for the Gunners in four years.
Even in a fanbase that specialises in divisions, few footballers have proved quite as contentious as Aaron Ramsey in the last five or so years. His biggest fans see a complete midfielder who’s among Europe’s finest in the role. His biggest critics question whether he can even be defined as a central midfielder and lament his perceived tactical and technical deficiencies. A significant part of this is due to the mercurial nature of the Welshman himself. His inconsistencies are magnified as his all action nature can occasionally lead to spectacular results but can also help to highlight his biggest failings during his slumps of form. Whichever you see as the norm rather than the blip goes a long way to deciding your feelings about the player.
But there is arguably something deeper in the case of Ramsey. Some footballers quality is simply obvious when you watch them play. Even leaving aside indisputably world class players as examples, few Arsenal fans will have much negative to say about Alexandre Lacazette, for instance. While some might wish he was a bit quicker, or that he could be the same player while being a few inches taller, his technical level, composure in the box and ability to do the main thing people expect from him – namely, shoot the ball cleanly and accurately at goal when presented with the chance – means there’s very little audible discontent. Even when he fails to put away a chance he looks convincing.
Ramsey is not that sort of player. While it would be harsh to say he’s bad technically, it’s not his strength by any means, and he doesn’t stand out every time someone passes him the ball. Ramsey’s main attributes are primarily his engine and, as Arsene Wenger has been ardent to point out, his tactical intelligence, which allows him to maximise the benefits of having such a great stamina. It’s these skills that have contributed to Ramsey having a decent goal record over the last few years and it’s during his better goal scoring spells that he most obviously stands out as a good player and gets most praise. Indeed, one of Ramsey’s biggest failings in recent seasons has been his record in front of goal, which has prevented his skill in creating chances for himself from getting more recognition. If he’d finished at equal to or better than his expected goal rate he would’ve scored eight or nine more league goals since the 14/15 season began, which alone may have swayed much fan opinion about him. But his ability to drive the team forward both with the ball and with off ball running, influence multiple phases of play and create space for others is far less heralded, and seems to at times go completely unnoticed by many people. On the other hand, even committed Ramsey believers will admit that in his bad moments he can find himself struggling with some of the more basic tasks of a midfielder more than most high level players ever do, and such struggles tend to stick in the mind, particularly for those who tend to look past off ball qualities. It is perhaps why someone like Theo Walcott can get such sharp amounts of criticism, even after good seasons.
So divisive is Ramsey that there will still be some that doubt whether he’s had a good season, but those will probably never change their preconceptions of the player. So far Ramsey has had an exceptional season, undoubtedly his best since 2013/14. In the years since that acclaimed season, there has been much debate among Arsenal fans about how to get the best out of Ramsey. The perception that he performs better for Wales has only added fuel to that discussion – though in truth the lower standard of the vast majority of international games compared to the Premier League somewhat reduces the value of such comparisons.
So what has been the difference for Ramsey this season? Why have Arsenal managed to get a consistent level of performance from him not seen in the previous three seasons? For a start, one cannot deny the impact Arsenal not playing in the Champions League has had. Ramsey not being involved in the match day squad for any of Arsenal’s Europa League or League Cup games means the 5-0 win against Huddersfield was the first midweek game he’d played for the club this season. This of course allows him, like many other of Arsenal’s first XI players, to maintain a superior physical level for league games. But crucially for an injury prone player like Ramsey, it has significantly reduced his workload and it’s unlikely to be mere coincidence that it has coincided with one of his better runs of good health.
Ever since going down with a thigh injury on boxing day 2013, after a year where he was an ever-present in the Arsenal XI, Ramsey’s career has been consistently curtailed by various muscle injuries. Indeed it’s been rare for him to ever go more than three months without picking up another strain to sideline him for 4-6 weeks. The effect that can have on a player can’t be underestimated, no only on a physical level, but also a technical and tactical level. In the first half of last season in particular, Ramsey often found himself restricted to cameos off the bench as he looked to build up his fitness, looking incredibly rusty technically and sometimes with no obvious place in a team that had begun to evolve without him.
Having had virtually no significant interruptions since April – he missed the Community Shield and Watford away on fitness grounds, but hasn’t missed two in a row at any point – Ramsey has looked notably smoother on the ball and in his movements since the summer. While it’s rare for a player to make significant technical improvements aged 26, playing regularly has allowed him to maximise his level and he’s looked notably more confident in using his left foot and more assured in carrying the ball and evading pressure – his dribble success rate is the highest it’s ever been. While rarely short of stamina, an improved physical condition means he’s sharper in other areas such as speed, anticipation and agility, things that have sometimes been a weakness for him.
Another benefit to having a consistent run in the team is the ability to build chemistry with those around him. When Granit Xhaka was signed, many identified him as a potential partner for Ramsey, who’d not found a holding midfielder he suited playing alongside since Mikel Arteta’s body abandoned him in late 2014. For those fans, it was incredibly frustrating that the two didn’t make their first start together until December, where Ramsey inevitably felt another hamstring strain. Since April, however, the two have started together in the vast majority of Arsenal’s games. While at times initially their division of labour seemed counterintuitive, their chemistry improved as the 16/17 season finished, culminating in a dominant Arsenal midfield performance in the FA Cup final, where both players nailed their role to perfection. Even though Xhaka has not had the strongest season himself, he remains a naturally complementary player to Ramsey. Someone who likes to sit and is a dominant user of the ball, freeing Ramsey up to do the things he does best a few yards higher up the pitch. It’s a stark contrast to 2015/16 when Ramsey, usually playing with Francis Coquelin or Mathieu Flamini, had to normally be the dominant passing midfielder from deep, which is not only something he’s not particularly suited to, but was also compromising his attacking influence.
Ramsey also shares a good understanding with Arsenal’s forwards. Like most, he connects well with Özil, the archetype playmaker who could probably find on-pitch chemistry with an orangutang and whose presence makes almost everyone better. The occasional verbal quibble with Alexis has actually overshadowed the fact they share a decent understanding, and Ramsey’s forward runs in particular balance nicely with Alexis’ propensity to drop deep and look for passes into space. And quietly, Ramsey has assisted half of the six Lacazette goals that have seen an assister.
Something that has not been discussed as much, but is no less important, is the role Arsenal’s change of shape has had in allowing Ramsey to flourish. As mentioned, Ramsey’s biggest strength is how his engine and tactical intelligence allow him to make dangerous forward runs. These can help Arsenal overload in between the lines, and Ramsey is incredibly effective at getting on the end of balls in and around the box as well. The trouble for Arsenal has often been that in a 4-2-3-1, Ramsey has either had to make these runs from a midfield two in front of a pair of CBs, or from the right, where he has to come in on the angle in order to get into the same dangerous central areas. What the change to 3-4-2-1 has done is allow Ramsey to remain part of a central midfield two, where he can run from deep and central positions and be near impossible to track, while also adding another defensive body behind him, which, in theory, makes Arsenal less vulnerable to paying a defensive price from his ventures forward.
While it’s easy to emphasise much analysis of the back three formation on the defensive side, since that’s where the obvious shift is, the biggest benefit has been in allowing Ramsey to join Arsenal’s three best attackers in forming a central front four, with the wingbacks providing width and Xhaka and the CBs covering. The four have combined with excellent movement, combination play and creativity to produce some of Arsenal’s best ever attacking numbers over the last couple of months, and Ramsey has been a major part of it. At Arsenal only Alexis has taken more league shots and only Lacazette more in the box. On the creative side, Ramsey leads Arsenal in assists and only Özil and Alexis have made more key passes. His three goals and six assists have come at a rate of 0.73 per 90 minutes, and that doesn’t include the two penalties he’s won.
Where Ramsey’s physical gifts really come into play is in the fact he can get on the end of moves while still influencing many other stages of play. There are some perceptions that he spends half the time in matches goal hanging but this is far from the truth. In fact, while many midfielders whose main strength is running into the box are often somewhat detached from build up, conserving energy and waiting to come alive in the final third, Ramsey is constantly on the move, getting lots of touches and opening space for teammates. A classic example is in last Saturday’s match against Manchester United, where a Ramsey run into the middle of the box created Arsenal’s goal, but Ramsey still had 93 touches, the 2nd most of any player in the match, and was pivotal to Arsenal’s overall dominance of the game. Indeed Ramsey averages significantly more passes per 90 minutes than the likes of Wijnaldum, Goretzka, Khedira and Paulinho. While defensively, Ramsey still isn’t quite the prolific destroyer he was in 2013, his defensive intensity has improved from last season, and after the disaster of Anfield, he’s managed to find the right balance between attacking and conservatism in impressive big match performances against Chelsea and Tottenham.
The only downsides amongst all of this is that Ramsey is becoming increasingly important and is somewhat irreplaceable in the squad. None of the alternatives for Arsenal in central midfield are capable of performing his role, which means Arsenal are effectively short of an attacker when he doesn’t play. This can lead to pretty sterile performances, like the one we saw at Watford in October. It’s made worse by the fact he only has 18 months left on his contract and is putting himself in the shop window with his impressive performances, but those are worries for a later date. For now, it’s time to simply enjoy Aaron Ramsey playing at his very best in an Arsenal shirt; it’s not always been a regular occurrence in recent seasons.
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