At the start of each new season, a sense of optimism envelops the Premier League.
Fans believe that a fresh start could bring about the changes needed to transform their teams from also-rans to title-challengers. After Leicester City’s surprise success last season, the feeling that anything could happen is only going to be stronger.
It’s no different at Arsenal, who will hope that this the year they can finally reclaim a place at the summit of the Premier League. If they are to do that, the form of Aaron Ramsey will certainly play a vital role.
When a new campaign kicks off, the eyes of the fans are typically focused on new arrivals in the squad. However, Ramsey will also be under intense scrutiny when competitive football returns, though he’s been with Arsenal since 2008.
The reason for the increased attention is that Ramsey was absolutely outstanding during Euro 2016, his dynamic performances propelling Wales to the semi-finals of the competition. Had he not been suspended for that last-four tie with Portugal, perhaps they would have got even further.
Arsenal legend Thierry Henry was emphatic in his praise of Ramsey’s displays, telling Mike McGrath of the Sun, “You are always going to talk about Gareth Bale, as he was outstanding, but for me Aaron Ramsey was as good, if not a bit better.”
For the watching Arsenal fans, there would have been a curious mix of emotions—pride, certainly, but also some frustration. Why had Ramsey shone so brightly for Wales after a very underwhelming season at club level?
It’s partly a consequence of Ramsey’s status within the side. Ramsey is one of many stars at Arsenal, whereas he is one of only two top-class talents in the Welsh squad.
That plays into the second major factor in Ramsey’s excellent Wales performances: his deployment. As one of the team’s most important players, Chris Coleman is prepared to build his team around the former Cardiff City man.
That means playing in central midfield. Typically, Ramsey played as one of a trio of midfielders, with license to break forward and join the likes of Bale and Hal Robson-Kanu in attack. That suited his game perfectly: Ramsey has incredible stamina and was able to cover plenty of ground and lend support wherever he saw fit.
The player is on record as stating that central midfield is his best position. He said last summer, Tom Sheen of the Independent, “That’s where I think my best position is, that’s where I feel comfortable. … Hopefully, I can get back in there, stay fit and healthy and have a good year.”
The problem for Ramsey is that a central role has not always been easy to come by at Arsenal. In each of the last two seasons he has spent considerable time playing from the right-hand side.
Indeed, throughout the calendar year of 2015 he really struggled to dislodge either Santi Cazorla or Francis Coquelin from their central berths. In the end, it was only injury that afforded him a chance to play through the middle.
Now, Henry believes manager Arsene Wenger must permanently move Ramsey inside, per McGrath:
He showed Arsene what he can do in midfield.
Now we have Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla, it is difficult when you want to be in the middle for Arsenal. But what was good for Aaron was that he showed everyone.
Reading between the lines of what he says, he would prefer to be in the middle, but he will do a job on the right or wherever the boss asks him to play.
That is great of him, but as a No . 10 who runs beyond and everywhere, I just thought that he should have got more credit. He was as good as the other guys I saw in that tournament.
Maybe he didn’t score the six goals that Griezmann scored but assists, goals, energy, defending, going forward — hopefully that can be good for Arsenal if he can come home and play the same way.
However, Henry has stumbled upon the dilemma Wenger faces. For Wales, Ramsey is granted the freedom traditionally associated with a No. 10, but at Arsenal that spot is occupied by Ozil—the club’s record signing. The team has been built around the mercurial German, so it’s difficult to envisage Wenger moving him to accommodate Ramsey.
That means that Ramsey has to drop into one of the two deploying midfield spots—a position which does not free him from defensive responsibility in quite the same way.
Frank Lampard, who knows a thing or two about what it takes to play successfully in a Premier League midfield, has concerns about Ramsey’s capacity to thrive in that position. He said on Sky Sports' Monday Night Football (h/t ESPN):
Ramsey has to change his game and think about the defensive side of his game. With [Mesut] Ozil playing so well he knows he's not going to get that No. 10 role, so he'll have to drop deeper.
At the moment he doesn't yet have the ability to play in the midfield two. I love him as a player, very bright and very clever but you can see by the way he's running back he doesn't really want to do it.
Ramsey has to see that Ozil is the No. 10 and drop back in. It's alright playing like he does when you're playing the lesser teams, but when you're playing top teams you need to be more secure.
If Wenger is to fit both Ramsey and Ozil into his side, the Welshman is going to have to accept he needs to be more disciplined in his approach. He’s done it before—arguably his best season in an Arsenal shirt came in 2013/14, when he played in a deeper role alongside Mikel Arteta.
Wenger must hope that new signing Granit Xhaka can provide a similarly effective foil for Ramsey’s rambunctious style. Like Arteta, he is an intelligent playmaker who is not afraid to put his foot in. Crucially, he appears to have the tactical understanding required to cover for Ramsey’s occasional lapses.
Last season, Arsenal’s central midfield was often dysfunctional and disorganised. The side had to cope for long spells without the likes of Arteta, Coquelin, Cazorla and Jack Wilshere. If Wenger can turn Xhaka and Ramsey into a formidable partnership, Arsenal will be in much better shape than in 2015/16.
In Ramsey, Arsenal have one of the best midfield talents in Europe. The events of Euro 2016 showed that. The challenge now is to construct a team that enables him to express his talents without impinging on Arsenal’s other key players.
Wenger must spend preseason finding a balance that enables Ramsey to produce something approaching his Wales form in an Arsenal shirt. If he does, Ramsey could join the likes of Henry and Lampard as one of the Premier League’s truly great performers.
Ramsey showed in France that he enjoys the limelight. Now is the time for him to take centre stage.