The best sides of the past few years have featured strong partnerships formed between tactically astute players, who complement one another’s game.
These players don’t merely compensate for what their on-field partners lack in their own game, but they also develop a great understanding and work as a formidable collective unit, greater than the sum of its parts.
In Wednesday night’s draw with PSG, Arsenal didn’t look like a cohesive unit.
Olivier Giroud was rewarded with a start for his equaliser at Old Trafford. However, he was flanked by two players with whom he doesn’t combine especially effectively, in Alexis Sanchez and Alex Iwobi. The team wasn’t set up to play to Giroud’s strengths and looked like a loose collective of talented individuals, rather than a cohesive unit with a plan.
By contrast, PSG kept a good shape, their midfield moved the ball well, and it was evident that they had a clear plan to use Matuidi and Cavani to attack the gap between Jenkinson and Mustafi. After taking the lead in exactly this way, they’d sit back, wait for Arsenal to overcommit, and then look to hit on the counter.
One of Arsenal’s issues at Old Trafford was that Mesut Özil was unable to receive the ball in dangerous areas after United’s press cut off the supply line to him. Wenger attempted to amend this vs PSG by tweaking the midfield base.
For the first time this season, Francis Coquelin was selected as Arsenal’s deepest midfielder. This was stylistically at odds with the system Arsenal used from the Southampton game through to Spurs, in which Wenger prefers a passer at the base of midfield and the more energetic player higher up the pitch.
The manager’s decision to favour mobility and set up this way for PSG may have factored in Coquelin’s mobility as an asset to mop up against the visitors’ incisive counter-attacks.
The trade-off for this was omitting a specialist passer to control the tempo and dictate play.
Using Coquelin deepest freed up the more advanced midfield spot for a more technically adept player, who could make positive contributions on the ball to Arsenal’s attacking play on the occasions when he finds himself in good positions and make himself available to receive the ball, rather than just being a spare part.
Aaron Ramsey made the most of his opportunity when he was finally restored to his favoured central midfield role. His performance was a throwback to the first 6 months of 2013, when his restoration to central midfield and blossoming partnership with Mikel Arteta was one of the two key reasons why Arsenal came back and overturned a deficit to pip Spurs to the final Champions League place.
Against PSG, Ramsey’s passing was measured, he took up astute positions, and his anticipation enabled him to break up play effectively. He led Arsenal in tackles, ball recoveries, interceptions, and completed passes. One third of these completed passes came in the final third of the pitch, demonstrating that Ramsey injected impetus into Arsenal’s play, assisted with ball circulation, and wasn’t just making up the numbers. (Figures obtained from FourFourTwo’s Statszone)
In addition to his contribution in the final third, Ramsey demonstrated footballing intelligence, maturity, and a good understanding of the game situation as he dropped deeper to help Arsenal build play and provide a calming influence in midfield under PSG pressure.
Some of the criticism levelled at Ramsey is that he isn’t defensively aware enough and is governed by his search for goals and assists. Wednesday night’s cerebral performance served as a stark reminder that there’s far more to his game than goals and energy.
He can do it all.
As encouraging as Wednesday night’s performance was, there is more to come from Ramsey this season. The two best seasons of his career saw him operating as Arsenal’s 2nd central midfielder, partnered by Arteta, who served as the heartbeat of that Arsenal team. The Spaniard controlled the tempo, injecting impetus when required, slowing things down and providing a calming influence when the opposition were starting to build pressure.
With Arteta’s defensive acumen beside him, Ramsey would be free to trust his natural instinct to attack the ball and win it back. With Arteta also providing technical security when in possession, Ramsey would be free to make late runs forward into the space vacated by the drifting Özil, getting himself into prime shooting positions.
While people remember Ramsey’s goal record in 2013/14, they often overlook his overall contribution to the team and how integral he was in powering Arsenal’s ascent to the top of the table on Boxing Day before sustaining a thigh injury which would keep him out for a third of the season.
The best managers put together teams to get the most out of their best players. Granit Xhaka was bought to be this side’s Arteta and enable Ramsey’s natural game. When Arsenal are in possession and it is Ramsey getting into some of the positions the inert Coquelin has occupied in the final third in recent weeks, Özil has another viable target to pass to. This in turn makes defenders and tracking midfield players second guess who to prioritise picking up, which could open up more space for Alexis or Walcott.
It’s a domino effect.
With Cazorla unlikely to be match fit until the trip to Manchester City, and Arsenal’s next 6 opponents deserving less respect than Wenger gave Manchester United and PSG, it would be a prime opportunity for the manager to experiment with a Xhaka – Ramsey partnership in a bid to reignite the team after a stuttering November and also get the best out of Özil and the front three.
Let the dominoes fall.