Rambo is in red hot form.
Two goals and an assist in the last two games are evidence of how he’s found his way back to the top after a complete festive blank: four games without a goal or an assist. Throughout those six games, Aaron has been having numerous chances, often good ones, but until the Sunderland fixture he has been spurning them.
I said on this week’s podcast that if he could pick up another goal at Anfield then I’d back him to go on another scoring run, and so it proved. And with his arch enemy on the agenda at the weekend, long may it continue.
There’s some statistic going around about how Stoke have only conceded in two games at home since Shawcross came back into the side in October, but they have conceded six in the last three Premier League games against Everton, West Brom and Norwich – hardly world beaters even if we have had a range of poor results against them ourselves! They have also reckoned without Ramsey’s form, and let’s face it, the debt that the universe owes him at Stoke.
I do love Aaron Ramsey – I have a shirt with his name on and I am desperate for us to tank Stoke each and every year purely in revenge for his injury. But here comes the but…
But, a nagging doubt persists for me about Ramsey and, perhaps more importantly, the performance of the team when he plays in central midfield. Admittedly he has so far partnered Mathieu Flamini rather than the rather more talented Francis Coquelin and yes he’s been doing so in a particularly lean spell for Arsenal. But I can’t shake the perception that we feel infinitely more vulnerable with him playing in that deeper role.
I’m not even talking about the way we build play from the back, something you would clearly expect Santi Cazorla to excel at. No, my biggest issue with our current midfield is that no matter Ramsey’s ground covered or number of tackles, we feel markedly less solid defensively. Somewhere down the line, Aaron just doesn’t quite have the discipline of his less likely but more effective colleague Cazorla in that deeper role – he simply goes missing at bad times.
Exhibit A: Newcastle (H)
We just about scraped the three points from this game but nervy isn’t even the word – we rode our luck at times and it’s hard to argue that a point each might have been a fairer division of spoils. And for me, that’s because we failed to shut the game down properly having gone 1-0 up.
When Giroud was substituted on 88 minutes, and Ozil moved up front, we saw Rambo enjoy a brief spell in the hole behind his German colleague and Calum Chambers sat in behind him. However, it was particularly concerning to me that between us scoring our goal on 72 minutes and that substitution, while he was explicitly playing in that central midfield role, Ramsey was to be found almost permanently prowling around the Newcastle final third.
Of course, in that situation a second goal would kill the game, but given the lean spell we have been going through in terms of performance if not so much results, it was a gamble rather than keeping it tight and sticking to ‘what we have we hold’.
Exhibit B: Liverpool (A)
The game at Anfield in midweek was a similar story, except this time we were punished for it. Ramsey scored a great goal bursting beyond the Liverpool defence, and timing those runs perfectly in the right scenario is what makes him such an effective player running for deep.
However, he was not disciplined enough in choosing when to go – too often we were left facing a counter attack with just Flamini ahead of the back four as well as often seeing one full back out of position having committed to the attack. To me, it’s worrying that our other central midfielder, in a game against a top side where we are just one goal to the good, thinks that the prudent course of action is to bomb forward at every opportunity. For the right counter attack, with other players covering, of course! But pretty much every move? Not so much. Not many title winning sides allow their midfielders to be quite so gung-ho.
Exhibit C: Sunderland (H)
In our FA cup tie with Sunderland, Aaron showed just why he is a great player, coming on after 60-odd minutes to replace Iwobi in the ‘Ozil position’ and basically running the show. He was able to find pockets of space both in front and behind the Black Cats’ defence, culminating in an excellent finish for our second goal.
Admittedly he was playing against the second string of a relegation-fodder side, and against players who had already played more than two thirds of a game and presumably were less fresh than Rambo as a result. But for me it illustrated how he can sometimes be at his most effective playing in behind the striker.
The only trouble is: Arsenal have a rather good number ten, a de-facto first choice, and I’m pretty sure he isn’t going to be displaced by Mr Ramsey any time soon.
So what now for Aaron? When we’re playing well, it’s much easier as we press teams further back so they’re less likely to break on us, and score more goals so that even if we do concede the odd one then it matters less.
When we’re playing badly, we need our senior players – and Ramsey is coming into that bracket now at 25 and with over 170 Arsenal appearances to his name – we need those senior players to make the right decisions so that when we do get our noses in front we don’t throw it away.
Aaron can do it – we’ve seen in some of our European ties against the likes of Bayern and Barca that he can sit deep and play positionally – but it looks like he doesn’t really want to unless we have effectively resigned ourselves to that as a sole game plan. Unless he can add better discipline to his game and read situations better so he knows when to stay and when to go, it’s hard to make a case for him playing in that central midfield pivot.
When Cazorla and Coquelin return, he’ll certainly struggle for game time there, but even in the interim it’s not really working. The question is, what are the options?