Left wing. Right wing. Centre midfield. Centre attacking midfield. Aaron Ramsey can play in all four of those positions, and it may be the reason why Arsenal end up selling him in the summer.
Versatility can often be the difference between a player staying at a top club for two years or 10. Having the ability to play in multiple positions will often see someone selected ahead of more talented players purely on the basis that they can be used to fix more than one problem. Aaron Ramsey has shown over the last 18 months that he is more than competent in numerous positions for Arsenal. But what happens when a player’s versatility is valued more than his skill-set?
Since Alexis Sanchez’s arrival at the club, Arsene Wenger has struggled to find a way of playing Aaron Ramsey in his preferred position, that being in centre-midfield. Ramsey’s breakout season in 2013-14 was based on making runs from deep, playing off flick-ons from Olivier Giroud and feeding off through balls from out wide from Santi Cazorla. He also had Mikel Arteta beside him, someone who was more than capable of keeping possession as well as protecting the back-line.
With Alexis now leading the line, there is far less of a need for someone to make those runs from deep that Ramsey is so good at, primarily because Alexis is now doing that himself. What Arsenal need more, is someone who can help pass between the opposition’s lines and get the ball to Mesut Özil as quick as possible. That’s why Cazorla has been virtually undroppable for a year, because of his ability to keep attacks moving at all times.
With two quality passers like Özil and Cazorla in midfield, plus Alexis’ constant running, Arsenal have attempted to move away from the pass and move style of football that benefitted Ramsey so well, to a more direct style of play that doesn’t suit him as much. He’s quick enough to beat a centre-back over five yards to get on the end of a through-ball, but not quick enough to beat a full-back over 20 yards to get to a similar pass. The result is that whilst he can quicken an attack when playing through the middle, he only slows it down when playing out wide.
With Cazorla’s injury prognosis worsening further with every passing day, the temptation to play both Granit Xhaka and Ramsey as a midfield pair must be huge. But for as long as Wenger doesn’t trust his big summer signing to keep his cool, Francis Coquelin or Mohammed Elneny will always be picked to play beside him, just to keep him out of trouble. And as we saw against Southampton in midweek, Ramsey playing in Özil’s role behind the striker doesn’t suit him when the striker doesn’t stay in the middle of the field and play one-twos with him. Lucas Perez was constantly making runs to the left and right of Ramsey, but Ramsey was trying to bounce the ball off him so that he could shoot himself, instead of setting up the scoring chance for someone else.
The result of all this chopping and changing is what we are seeing from Ramsey’s performances on the pitch; inconsistent attempts to try and fit into something that he wasn’t built to fit into. It’s not his fault that he’s been asked to play in multiple positions, but the fact that he can’t make one of them his own will only damage his long-term future at the club.
Ramsey is 25 years old. He’s still young enough to reach the potential he showed in 2013-14, but to do so, he has to be given a significant amount of time in one position. We’ve all seen how Alexis has transformed from a dangerous yet peripheral threat on the wing, to an out and out menace through the middle. He’s done that partly because he’s played up front for Chile for his career, but also because Arsenal have made an effort to cater the way they play around his strengths, whilst simultaneously giving him as many minutes as a striker as possible.
They’ve done this for Alexis. They’ve done it for Özil too. You can’t afford to do it for any more than two players, otherwise you’re relying too much on those who you are catering to. If those players are Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi, then it’s fine. But if it’s anyone else, you end up with an unfocused game plan, leading to inconsistent performances.
Everyone else in a team has to fill a specific role because you’ve gone out of your way to build around your stars, and whenever a team changes the way they play like Arsenal have, there will always be one or two players that suddenly become impossible to fit in. Real Madrid still can’t find a way of playing Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez in the same team, after three years of trying, so the Colombian, a player who’s easily a world class talent, is on the bench more often than not. Chelsea just went from 4-3-3 to 3-4-2-1 and now have no need for the likes of Oscar and Cesc Fabregas. Brilliant players often find themselves on the outside looking in, and most of the time, it’s through no fault of their own.
That’s why the Bournemouth game last weekend was so intriguing. Yes, Jack Wilshere didn’t play, but he is a player who was in the exact same predicament that Aaron Ramsey finds himself in now. He knows that when given time to play in his best position, that he can be an exceptional player, but Wilshere came to the conclusion that he wasn’t going to get that opportunity at Arsenal, and left for somewhere that he would.
With Wilshere back in the England set-up, and getting back to peak fitness, one has to wonder whether the same thoughts are now running through the Welshman’s head.