During this international break, Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey edged closer toward a lifetime goal by bringing Wales to the brink of qualification for a major European tournament. The Welsh team are now just one point away from securing a place at Euro 2016.
It will be a remarkable achievement if and when they get there, but it’s one that the composed Ramsey takes in his stride. It comes relatively easy to him: He is a rare talent, the sort that only emerges a few times in every generation. Of the current crop of British midfielders, he’s arguably the best.
With his work at international level almost done for the season, Arsenal must focus on how to get the best out of Ramsey domestically.
The big debate about how to use him focuses on his position. At present, Ramsey is being shunted back and forth between central midfield and the right wing. The problem for Ramsey is that Arsenal are overcrowded in the middle. As the club’s record signing, Mesut Ozil, is first in line for the coveted No. 10 role. Ramsey’s best position is arguably behind that, as one of the two deeper-lying central midfielders. However, during the Welshman’s absence last year, Santi Cazorla and Francis Coquelin struck up an unlikely partnership in that position that endures to this day.
That meant Ramsey being pushed out to the right when he returned in the spring. It’s a position he filled temporarily a couple of years back, and Arsene Wenger obviously feels he has the tactical flexibility to cope out on the flank. However, it’s not an ideal situation for the player. Last season, a frustrated Ramsey told the Daily Mirror (h/t Metro):
I’m not hiding away from it, I want to be in the middle. I’ve had chats with the manager about it. I showed at Manchester United what I’m capable of doing when I go into the middle of the park.
But the manager said he wants me to do a job out there for the moment and obviously I’ll do that for him. But I prefer to play in the middle. We have wingers on the bench, but he’s still picking me out wide.
This season, Wenger began the campaign with an attempt to restore Ramsey to his preferred position. On the opening day against West Ham, he started in central midfield alongside Coquelin. The move was part of an attempt on Wenger’s part to introduce greater physicality to the spine of his team.
It did not go to plan. With Arsenal trailing at half-time, the Gunners boss was forced to switch Santi Cazorla infield to restore some rhythm to their play. In the following game against Crystal Palace, Ramsey found himself starting on the wing again.
Time seems to have mellowed his attitude a little, and he now seems more amenable to the role. Speaking to Arsenal.com, he said:
It was the manager’s decision and he tweaked things around. He told me to try and get in between the lines, not stay outside, to come inside and I thought I did that by getting into some dangerous positions. Some of the combination play was really good and on another day we could’ve scored more.
We played really well, got into some dangerous positions in between the lines and on another day we could have scored a few more. Even though we conceded we never questioned our ability to go on and score again.
I had a couple of chances and maybe on another day they would’ve gone in. I’m just happy for the team, for Olivier to get his goal and to get the win.
When the international break ends, Wenger must decide if Ramsey will be remaining on the right or returning to the middle.
He got a rare chance in a central role in Arsenal’s last league game against Newcastle. With Mesut Ozil absent, Ramsey was played as the team’s central attacking playmaker. The results were impressive: He created five chances in the course of the match, helping Arsenal maintain dominance with an impressive passing accuracy of 90 percent.
Some would suggest that’s indicative of Ramsey being at his most effective in his preferred part of the pitch. However, it’s worth making a comparison with one of his performances from the right.
Playing on the flank at Selhurst Park, Ramsey was equally dangerous. He created four goalscoring opportunities—almost as many as when playing as a conventional No. 10—and managed four shots on goal as opposed to just two at Newcastle.
Here is his heat map from his performance in the central berth at St. James’ Park:
Now, for the sake of contrast, here is his heat map while ostensibly playing from the right against Palace:
Note that even when his starting position is wide, he is still able to be involved all over the field—perhaps less frequently but still seemingly just as effectively.
Arsenal’s system is a fluid one, and deployment on the flanks is not a barrier to attacking involvement. Look at Alexis Sanchez—he plays from the left, yet perennially crops up in the centre. The three players behind the centre-forward typically interchange throughout the 90 minutes, dragging defenders out of position with their zig-zagging runs across the pitch.
With the overlapping Hector Bellerin outside him, Ramsey has license to drift all over the pitch from the right. In some respects, it makes him harder for defenders to pick up. Freddie Ljungberg made a career out of ghosting between the full-back and centre-half with late runs, and Ramsey has all the tools to do the same.
That position may actually grant him more freedom than he would get sat deep alongside Francis Coquelin or Mikel Arteta. At the present moment, Arsenal are struggling for goals—and that’s something Ramsey can help provide. Fielding him further forward will liberate him from some of his defensive duties and enable him to focus on combining with the likes of Ozil and Olivier Giroud to fashion goalscoring opportunities for his hammer of a right foot.
Does he have more to offer? Arguably, yes. Ramsey has the talent and temperament to control a game from the middle of the park. However, in Cazorla and Ozil, Arsenal already have players primed to do that. Ramsey’s time may come, but he’s not currently needed as a pivotal playmaker. His best use is as an impact player, and that impact can undoubtedly be made from wide.
All stats via Squawka