Arsenal played 70 minutes with 10 men in Sunday’s loss to Chelsea, but it didn’t always feel like we were a player down.
That’s because Aaron Ramsey is an unbelievable and underappreciated footballer – he’s more than one midfielder all on his own. Unfortunately he was partnered by Mathieu Flamini, who hardly counts as half a player. As such, we essentially did have 10 men and it cost us.
Once again, somehow, a disappointing performance and result has seen criticism directed towards Ramsey on social media. Is it Aaron Ramsey’s fault that the whole side lacks compactness? That they can’t smoothly transition into a defence shape? That his midfield partner has no footballing intelligence? Apparently so.
Partnering Mathieu Flamini, it’s Ramsey’s duty to be a box-to-box midfielder. That doesn’t mean he should be reckless, but sensible. He’s our all-round midfielder who we need involved in all phases of play, our ‘number eight’.
The recent midweek draw against Liverpool saw Ramsey provide Arsenal with their only attacking outlet as Jürgen Klopp’s side penned us in during the first half. To be completely honest Arsenal were poor, but three moments from Ramsey kept us alive as he stationed himself high up the pitch. Petr Čech completed more passes than any other Arsenal player in the first half that day, so it’s fair to assume the plan was to get bodies around and beyond Olivier Giroud as the ball went long to him.
Ramsey did get beyond Giroud. The first time he got into the Liverpool box he scored. The second time he got into the Liverpool box he had an effort cleared off the line. From the resulting corner, taken by Ramsey, our French striker found the back of the net. From then onwards the midfielder stuck by Mathieu Flamini in the middle of the park. Liverpool’s press was far less intense and Arsenal were a bit more solid with Ramsey sticking in the middle of the park. For the opening 30 minutes Ramsey’s high position seemed a deliberate instruction, for the last hour he unquestionably kept his discipline. He attempted 15 passes in Liverpool’s third in the first half that day, but just 4 in the second half. The issues of the first half an hour wouldn’t have been as concerning had he been partnered by a good player.
Some fans seem to believe Ramsey neglects defensive duties but he wins the ball far more often than Flamini, even deep in his own half. You can’t expect both central midfielders to sit in front of the back four, unless you want to park the bus, so Ramsey’s box-to-box role naturally has him at both ends of the pitch. He has the legs to manage that, he just needs a partner who can engage opposition players before they’re in a dangerous position.
Yet many have seen the performance at Anfield come as a result of Ramsey’s ill-discipline, his desperation to get amongst the goals. He’s being labelled as a selfish player, and it’s so far wide of the mark it’s beyond belief.
Too often against Liverpool, Mathieu Flamini was sat just ahead of Arsenal’s defence. Positioning himself so deep, he added nothing. No pressure on the ball, nothing the defence couldn’t have done without him. With Aaron Ramsey probably asked to push up and his midfield partner vacating his position, what was was the outcome ever going to be?
The same was true of Flamini against Chelsea on Sunday, with the midfielder at the heart of a lot of Arsenal’s biggest issues. The Frenchman, who didn’t win a single tackle during the game, had the chance to engage Willian as the Brazilian broke 17 minutes into the game. Retreating an incredible 30 yards without putting Willian under any pressure, the winger eventually fed the ball behind Per Mertesacker to the unrushing Diego Costa. We all know what happened next.
Always eager to distance himself from play, Flamini was playing on top of his own defenders again when Chelsea scored. Running around manically with no intention of marking a player, he only had eyes for the ball as it was crossed from the left wing. It came in again from the right and Flamini, who had barged past Gabriel and ignored the unmarked Diego Costa, ran across the eye-line of Laurent Koscielny as the ball came in, and was nowhere near anything of actual importance.
That’s what Flamini did wrong as an individual on Sunday, but what about his partnership with Ramsey? When Flamini pressed the ball, or when he was in the box getting into dangerous areas, Ramsey kept his position in the middle of the park. His intelligence and selflessness meant he read the game and each situation and didn’t allow any obvious gaps for Chelsea to break into. When Ramsey made a move forward, when he pressed the ball, Flamini never dropped into the space. Always either too high up the field or collapsing onto his centre-halves, he has been a total liability and Ramsey’s taking the blame.
The indisciplined Ramsey who won more tackles than any other Arsenal player on Sunday, and made more ball recoveries. The ‘technically limited’ Ramsey (yes, that’s a criticism I’ve seen) who completed more take-ons than any other player on Sunday. The selfish Ramsey who made more passes than any other Arsenal player on Sunday. By the way, he completed 58 of 66 passes (87.9% – a higher proportion than any other Arsenal midfielder and pretty close to the 90% Santi Cazorla has averaged this season) yet people who I have spoken to or read things from on Sunday evening think he frequently gave the ball away, it’s absurd. People inexplicably have the ump with Arsenal’s hugely talented all-round midfielder and confirmation bias does the rest.
Many would like to see Ramsey return to the right wing when other players are back, presumably happy to watch an Arsenal centre-midfield pairing with no goal threat from open play (Santi Cazorla hasn’t scored from open play in 34 consecutive Premier League starts in the middle of the park and Jack Wilshere is far from being a regular scorer). They’re presumably happy for Arsenal’s midfield to lack any sort of dynamism, or a player who can bring the best out of Mesut Özil and Olivier Giroud. They presumably missed the fact that Ramsey was regularly used wide but played centrally anyway to help out a midfield which didn’t have any box-to-box ability at all.
Next week the Gunners face Burnley in the FA Cup, but our 3rd round win against Sunderland already seems to have been forgotten. We looked slow, ponderous and a little desperate. Until Ramsey came on. Within a minute or so we had a chance. Within five we had a goal, and it was Ramsey who scored it. He finds positions from central midfield which a world class striker would be proud of and, for some reason, people seem to think he’s not a midfielder as a result.
Expecting Aaron Ramsey to run Arsenal’s midfield is a little harsh but nothing beyond his ability. Amazingly, with Flamini as his partner, he’s doing it. I’m genuinely sorry for anyone who can’t see that.