"I’m happy with what I’ve achieved so far, and especially with the way things are going for me personally this season, but hopefully there’s a lot more to come."
No doubt, things are going well for him. He became the captain of Wales at 20 and now, he's enjoying a prominent role in the Arsenal team.
Worthy of thanks is his return from the horrible injury that sidelined him for a year and threatened to cut short his young and promising career.
Of the injury, he said:
"What happened with my injury is behind me now, and I’m just really glad to be back playing for Arsenal regularly. Before my injury I was just starting to do that, so it’s just nice to be out there every week again."
On the 2011 season, he declared:
"I still have plenty of things to learn, but with any luck I’ll be able to bring more to the team in 2012."
Of that, there shouldn't be any doubt. Few can question Ramsey's talent and the promise it holds for Arsenal's future, but as he himself notes, he still has a long way to go if he is to contribute in making Arsenal's midfield what it needs to be.
As it is, "that special spark" needed to make the midfield potent is still lacking in the current team despite Ramsey's insistence that Arsenal's current midfield has the right balance.
"That special spark” is not an indictment on the individuals in the current midfield. It's just that when the midfield is considered as a unit, the combination fails to create the extra spark that should give the team the added buoyancy it needs.
The midfield is defensively stronger than last year's, to be sure, but defensive sturdiness must be matched by attacking potency.
Surveying the midfield
Alex Song, for example, is developing into a very influential defensive midfielder who also displays an instinctive knack for incisive forward overlaps.
Plus, he has shown that he possesses a vision for the killer pass. This, though, still is in the inchoate stage.
In the case of Mikel Arteta, I should allow Ramsey himself to describe him:
"Mikel has definitely brought good experience to the midfield. We all knew what he was capable of before he came here—he was one of the best players at Everton, has a great range of passing and is very intelligent.
In certain situations where you might need to see a game out he keeps the ball well and calms things down, and his stats prove that."
A few had the mistaken notion that Arteta was bought to replace Cesc Fabregas. While he could surely play the creative role with some adequacy, Arsene Wenger has chosen to play him in the box-to-box role, a role that appears to suit his talent and maturity well.
The creative midfield role.
Before I examine this role, I should mention briefly the other available midfielders.
Both Francis Coquelin and Emmanuel Frimpong are of the defensive mold. Moreover, they are available mainly for cup games and the once-in-a-while odd league game, so for them, it suffices to say that their major contribution lies in the future.
This, then, leaves Jack Wilshere and Abou Diaby.
How exciting that he's returning either in late January or early February! I'm sure every Gooner is dying to see him in the red and white again.
Jack Wilshere is sure to add dimension to Arsenal’s midfield when he returns from injury.
Jack Wishere is a box-to-box midfielder, not a creative midfielder as some think—at least, not with the way Wenger played him last season.
Can he be a creative midfielder? Probably.
But from what I've seen of him so far, he seems better suited to the enforcer-role. I believe this was what stood him out last season. What his return does, therefore, is provide an alternative to Arteta.
If Arsene Wenger continues to play both in the box-to-box role, there'll be a battle for the starting position between the two.
Wenger could, of course, rotate them to eliminate the likelihood of a battle between them for the starting position. As things stand, Jack Wilshere shouldn't hope to simply walk into the midfield on merit or reputation alone.
He'll have to show something extra to displace either Arteta or Song for the starting position. He does have the ability and capability; this, however is extraneous to the focus of the article.
Of the three midfielders who could be considered for the creative role—Ramsey, Arteta, Diaby—I believe Diaby is the better suited of the three to the role.
He possesses better one-on-one skill in terms of taking on the opposition. Moreover, he has the vision for the killer pass, which is required for this role. The remarkable thing about him, though, is his versatility.
The skillful but injury-prone Abou Diaby.
He also is a box-to-box midfielder who can also play the Iniesta role,that is, he can be played slightly on the flank, high up the pitch to allow him to make diagonal runs toward the opposition’s goal. (see this article and this on the subject.)
Unfortunately, Diaby seems to be jinxed by injuries. Whether or not he'll ever overcome this problem is an open question.
This, then, is the summary of the midfield as it currently stands. Most would agree it is a strong midfield. Does it, though, have "that extra spark"?
This is the big question.
And since we’re not sure of Diaby’s suitability to the creative role nor of his durability after his latest injury, the option we’re left with is Aaron Ramsey.
Aaron Ramsey currently plays in what is the most crucial position for Arsenal's style, a style that comes from the same philosophical school as Barcelona's—the reason why the two teams play a similar style and why they're often compared.
The two styles though occupy different branches of the said philosophical school. This, of course, is the reason the two teams—despite the noticeable similarity in their style—differ in their approach to the game
However, despite this difference, both branches emphasize possession and attack.
Emphasis on attack means bias against the destructive side of the game. But although attacking football is one form of defense, it nonetheless admits the problem of conceding preventable goals, a weakness often disguised by the ability to outscore the opponent.
For this system to work, therefore, the team must not only create chances in abundance, it must convert these chances at a very high ratio. This means the team must have a creator-in-chief, a role Cesc Fabregas played at Arsenal.
This very fact, of course, is the reason why Arsene Wenger was reluctant to let Fabregas go. One only has to look at Fabregas' assists to appreciate the importance of his role as a creator for the team.
As far as the first requirement goes—the creation of sufficient chances—the current Arsenal team is not doing too badly. This can be seen in the following chart.
Now I should like to state the three reasons why "Arsenal may not be happy with Ramsey."
First, Ramsey is no Fabregas, nor should he be expected to be. This means that he's not as consistent as Fabregas was in executing defense-splitting passes.
Ramsey, it must be noted, has made some telling passes a few times. For him to add "that extra spark" to Arsenal’s midfield, though, he has to have high and consistent ratio of such passes. Right now he is not at that level, nor does he seem to be that kind of player.
That's where the issue and the problem lie. Let me elaborate via a reference to Arsenal's formation.
Although most would describe Arsenal's formation as 4-2-3-1, it's only true insofar as it provides a frame of reference. It's actually a 4-2-1-2-1 formation.
While this looks like quibbling over minor details, the difference is crucial to Arsenal's style. The middle "one" is the key to the formation.
Fabregas was, of course, "the key" in the team, a role that enabled the team to score freely. It is the attacking equivalent of the so-called "Makelele role." In fact, it should be named “the Fabregas role.”
No team currently uses this role, as far as I can tell (I'm open to correction). Although Barcelona's Xavi and Iniesta both possess equal ability to make telling passes, they are not used in the same way as Fabregas was at Arsenal.
Their system essentially utilizes two deeper-sitting Fabregas-type players at the base of a creator midfielder/striker (Messi). The diagram illustrates the difference.
Barcelona, of course, tend to press their opponent higher on the pitch than Arsenal.
The reason for Barcelona's dominance in possession is immediately apparent from the diagram. Lionel Messi, for example, is not an ordinary striker, but a breed between the Maradona-type No. 10 and a striker proper.
That's the reason he is both a creator and a scorer, hence his staggering number of goals and assists.
As I have noted above, Iniesta and Xavi are practically two Fabregas types who sit deeper in the midfield. Their role is dual—command the midfield and make killer passes. Both are adept at these roles.
Busquets, meanwhile, breaks off opponents’ attacks and initiates Barcelona's.
Arsenal's midfield more than Barcelona’s, you'd observe, is closer to the traditional 4-3-3. A big difference between the two formations, however, is “the Fabregas role.”
It was the door through which most of Arsenal's attacks passed when Fabregas was in the team. Fabregas' uncanny vision meant he could create goals seemingly from nothing.
"Uncanny vision" is what Ramsey does not have…yet; plus his style is markedly different from Fabregas’. A major reason why he isn't Fabregas nor should he be.
And now to the difference, which appropriately admits our second reason why "Arsenal may not be happy with Ramsey."
Ramsey is no Messi, at least, not yet.
Ramsey's style leans toward the old-fashioned creative midfielder type than the quick killer-passer type that Fabregas was. It means that his style wants to dominate midfield through sheer skill rather than through the creation of telling passes. In this he leans towards Messi more than Fabregas.
There's nothing wrong with this, of course; only that if you want to dominate the tip of the midfield by this means, your skill set—as far as this goes—has to be sufficiently higher than that of other players on the pitch, barring the event of playing against a team that has your equal in its ranks.
Because Ramsey leans naturally toward the skillful enforcer type, and because he's not yet head-and-shoulders above the rest of the pack, it means that his returns—as far as this goes—are only average for Arsenal.
But, if you want to play the kind of football Arsenal plays, average is not sufficient.
So here's the point. Ramsey isn’t doing anything wrong as far as form is concerned. In fact, he's doing better than would be expected under the circumstance (See the stats below).
The fact simply is that he doesn’t yet possess "that extra spark" that should give his team an edge over its opponents, the extra element that both David Silva and Messi give their respective teams.
Ramsey and Fabregas compared.
It is the reason why Ramsey is a perplexing case.
On the one hand he seems annoying for some reason, but on the other one is unable to isolate the problem why he's annoying. If this describes you, then what you’re discerning is the lack of the said "extra spark" from Ramsey’s game, the necessary ingredient for his particular role.
Will Ramsey ever grow to be Messi-like? We don't know.
Does he possess better-than-average skill? Yes.
Will he grow beyond where he is currently? Certainly.
Is he Arsenal's midfield solution at present? It depends on what your standard is. If your aim is an A+ then he's not; if you're satisfied with B+, then he is adequate.
Here's the third reason why "Arsenal may not be happy with Ramsey."
Ramsey is the reason why other players can't get games; he is a conundrum of sorts.
Although Arsenal's formation seems to allow for a solitary central striker only, in reality the creative midfielder is the ostensible second striker.
He is somewhat like the supporting striker in the 4-4-1-1 system. This means that he has to either create a high percentage of assists (the kinds of chances that can't but be converted), else he, himself, has to score goals on a consistent basis.
Ramsey falls short on both counts.
But the worrying thing is that despite this failure, he persists in maintaining his place in the lineup. It means that supporting strikers, such as Ju-Young Park and Marouane Chamakh, can't get sufficient games to ensure the cultivation and sustenance of their confidence.
Naturally, this applies more to Marouane Chamakh than Park. In Park's case, he can't even get into the lineup because Ramsey is playing the role he’d otherwise play.
But beside the supporting striker conundrum, the persistent presence of Ramsey in the lineup means that he keeps out other midfielders, such as Yossi Benayoun and Tomas Rosicky.
Well and good, if he is determined to be the better of the two, although I think that in some matches Rosicky could be the better choice. Moreover Benayoun does offer a different dimension to the team.
Here, though, is another big problem the Ramsey conundrum creates.
Ramsey’s persistent presence in the lineup means that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain can’t get games. Here’s why.
Theo Walcott possesses just enough dimension and quality to keep Chamberlain at bay from the wing position.
However, since Chamberlain is more the midfield type than Walcott, he could play in the "hole" behind the main striker, in the position where Ramsey plays. This would be much like the role Robin van Persie played when Thierry Henry was the main striker at Arsenal.
Oxlade-Chamberlain’s current lack of opportunity may owe to Ramsey’s presence in the “hole” where either he or Walcott could play.
Concomitantly, it means that as long as Ramsey occupies this position, Theo Walcott cannot get a trial behind van Persie, in the supporting striking role.
Note that, were Theo Walcott to be shifted to this “hole,” Chamberlain likely would be in the Walcott position. So in essence, the persistent playing of Ramsey in his current position stifles the apparent structural creativity that could occur in Arsenal’s formation.
I should note again that Ramsey possesses just enough skill to justify his constant presence in the midfield, but whether “just enough skill” justifies ignoring the highlighted disadvantages is a big question—one that is worth a consideration, especially since Ramsey is not creating or scoring the percentage of goals that his special role requires.
Ramsey has come a long way since his return from injury and since Fabregas left. He has contributed to the improvement of Arsenal. Moreover, he has helped rescue the team from the brink of collapse. He works very hard in the midfield, a fact that proves his dedication to the team.
In other teams this would be enough. But is Arsenal now just another team? Should the bar be lowered to accommodate average returns or should fans expect more from the team?
If more is the answer, then perhaps Wenger should take a look at the Ramsey conundrum with a view of solving it.
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