Why Arsenal Still Can't Afford to Give Aaron Ramsey a Spot in the Centre

James McNicholasFeatured ColumnistNovember 14, 2016

Aaron Ramsey has been in action for Wales during the international break.
Aaron Ramsey has been in action for Wales during the international break.Stu Forster/Getty Images

Aaron Ramsey is back. Having suffered a thigh injury in Arsenal's opening game of the Premier League campaign, Ramsey has been steadily building his fitness back up.

Effectively, he has enjoyed a full pre-season, recuperating from an exhausting Euro 2016 schedule and steadily preparing for Premier League action.

After more than two months on the sidelines, he returned to action as a substitute in Arsenal’s 4-1 win over Sunderland on October 29. He then made his first start since regaining fitness in the 3-2 win over Ludogorets Razgrad before another cameo from the bench in the north London derby against Tottenham Hotspur.

Wales have not been so cautious about managing his comeback. Speaking prior to their World Cup qualifier against Serbia, manager Chris Coleman spoke glowingly about Ramsey’s quality, per the BBC Sport: "Take him out of any team, and it's a loss. That's not a biased opinion because I'm a Welshman, and we all love Rambo. I'm looking at it clinically. Playing in tournament against the top teams, he was head and shoulders above. In my personal opinion, there's not a team on the planet he couldn't play for."

Coleman may well be right—there are few teams for whom Ramsey would not make the starting XI. However, at Arsenal, his quality does not guarantee him a place in his best position. Ramsey may well be back in the squad, but it’s unlikely that he’ll be back in central midfield any time soon. 

Ramsey must relish playing for Wales because he is invariably deployed in his preferred role in the middle of the park. So it proved against Serbia—with Joe Allen and Joe Ledley operating in more conservative roles, Ramsey was free to tear forward at will. His was a true box-to-box performance, cut from the same cloth as his show-stealing displays at the Euros. 

However, Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger clearly doesn’t share Coleman’s conviction about where Ramsey should be playing. When he started the Welshman against Ludogorets, he fielded him on the right wing—the same position he started in for much of 2015/16.

Speaking after the win in Bulgaria, Wenger said, per James Goldman of Metro:

I just consider the next game and try to find the balance with the players to be in a position where they can give their best for the team.

Aaron Ramsey has come back from 11 weeks injury you know, he has to come back, you do not come back by magic, It takes time but he can bring us his strengths in every single position – wide or central.

You know of course I speak with all of the players about their performances, about their positions. Most of the time I think you want the players to be happy and to play in their best position.

Ramsey did play in the centre of midfield after coming on against Spurs. However, that was a tactic specifically designed to help break down a compact Tottenham defence. Arsenal were chasing the game, so Wenger rolled the dice by introducing the attack-minded Ramsey for Francis Coquelin. 

Aaron Ramsey came on in central midfield against Tottenham.
Aaron Ramsey came on in central midfield against Tottenham.Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

It’s highly unlikely he’d employ that kind of tactic from the start in Arsenal’s next Premier League match, a daunting trip to face Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United on Saturday.  

Curiously, Ramsey’s strengths count against him in this instance. Consider his defining qualities as a midfielder, and one thinks of his goalscoring ability and willingness to run beyond the striker.

Wenger described him thus, per Arsenal's website: "He is a player who is box-to-box, so overall he pushes the team forward. That is what we want in our side. ... He has a tremendous drive, he’s a bit Lampard-ish, you know, where he likes to get in the box, likes to shoot from distance and has similar quality." 

However, Arsenal’s 4-2-3-1 system requires two sitting midfielders to operate behind Mesut Ozil. The German is undroppable, and Ramsey is seemingly considered too cavalier to play behind him.

Arsenal are a side with huge attacking emphasis—with Ozil, Alex Iwobi, Theo Walcott and Alexis Sanchez on the field, it sometimes feels as if they’re playing with four forwards. Add Ramsey’s natural attacking instincts to the setup, and it threatens to become unbalanced.

There is another issue facing Wenger: Shifting Ramsey to central midfield requires the manager to forge a new partnership. The only player Ramsey has ever built up any kind of understanding with in the middle of the park was Mikel Arteta.

The Spaniard has since retired, and although Granit Xhaka looks capable of emulating Arteta’s playing style, any chemistry between the Switzerland international and Ramsey is purely speculative at this stage. They have only played together for a matter of minutes. 

Arsene Wenger has preferred to use Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla in tandem.
Arsene Wenger has preferred to use Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla in tandem.RINGO CHIU/Getty Images

Wenger has already spent the first period of the season bedding in two other partnerships through the spine of the side. At the back, Shkodran Mustafi has been thrown in at the deep end alongside Laurent Koscielny. At the other end of the field, Alexis' redeployment as a No. 9 has thrust him into what’s essentially a front two with Ozil.

With those on-pitch relationships still in their infancy, Wenger has tended to rely upon the tried-and-trusted duo of Santi Cazorla and Coquelin in midfield. If Cazorla is fit to face United, he is almost certain to start alongside the combative Frenchman.

So what of Ramsey? The sheer amount of ground he covered playing for Wales suggests he’s ready to start matches for Arsenal. If that’s not to be in the centre of midfield, his best bet might be to target Iwobi’s place on the left-hand side.

Although Ramsey is more accustomed to playing on the right, Walcott has been in excellent form in that particular channel. On the opposite side, Iwobi’s performances have dropped off a little after a promising start to the campaign. He has yet to score a goal this season, and there are signs that the 20-year-old might benefit from some time out of the spotlight.

Iwobi’s role in the team is to cut in from the left flank and collude with Ozil. Effectively, he is a second No. 10—a non-auxiliary playmaker, like Samir Nasri and Andrey Arshavin before him. Ramsey, although not as technically tidy as Iwobi, has many of the attributes required to flourish in that position.

Indeed, he probably offers a greater goal threat than the Nigeria international and would work tirelessly to protect Nacho Monreal at left-back.

Ramsey should make sure to enjoy his chance to play in the centre with Wales. Such opportunities may be difficult to come by in the Premier League.

The Welshman may be one of Europe’s outstanding central midfielders, but Arsenal’s tactical setup means that he’s likely to remain confined to the flanks.

      

James McNicholas is Bleacher Report's lead Arsenal correspondent and will be following the club from a London base throughout 2016/17. Follow him on Twitter here.