Boxing Day 2013, Arsenal won at Upton Park but Aaron Ramsey picked up a thigh strain which ruled him out until April.
Mesut Özil had signed on deadline day of the previous summer and, together with Ramsey, had helped Arsenal mount a title challenge. Ramsey occasionally played on the right wing, but in 13 of the opening 18 games of the Premier League season Arsenal used Ramsey in central midfield, with Özil at number 10. (All numbers from Transfermarkt).
Contributing to 13 goals in those matches, Ramsey catapulted Arsenal to the top of the league. Özil had more than done his bit too, with four goals and eight assists. With this balanced partnership winning matches, Arsenal topped the league on Boxing Day.
Since then, seeing Ramsey and Özil both play centrally has been pretty rare. It returned at the end of 2013/14 season for four more wins from as many games, two more Ramsey goals (three assists) and both a goal and an assist from the German playmaker.
The old partnership was back in tandem at the Emirates Stadium on Saturday, as the Gunners saw off Sunderland thanks to – you guessed it – an Özil assist, a Ramsey assist, and a Ramsey goal. This is the base upon which Arsenal must build to challenge for major honours again this season.
Santi Cazorla playing behind Mesut Özil has been practical for Arsenal, as the Gunners have sought to play through opponents with technique, which the Spaniard has in abundance. What it doesn’t allow Arsenal to do is play to Özil’s incredible strengths.
A number 10 only by name, Mesut Özil does all of his best work in the half-spaces (a brilliant article on half-spaces can be found here). Essentially, Özil is rarely central when picking up or moving the ball. The German picks up pockets of space either side of defenders or midfielders, looking to play more diagonal balls through to runners. This means two things:
- He needs runners to play the ball to.
- He leaves and thus creates space through the centre of the pitch for those runners to infiltrate.
Santi Cazorla is technically superb, but doesn’t have the physical drive (nor the inclination) to burst into spaces off the ball. Maybe he doesn’t want to, or maybe he recognises he doesn’t have the ‘engine’ to recover and get back again. Either way, he’s always willing to accept the ball from Özil but rarely in dangerous areas.
Returning to his favoured position on Saturday, Ramsey looked a little rusty before showing his old self, and it plays to Özil’s strengths completely. His intelligent movement and willingness to break lines off the ball make Özil so much more dangerous.
So far this season, in 13 Premier League games together, Mesut Özil has played 191 passes to Santi Cazorla. Of these passes, only three were received in the opposition box and just 36 (18.9%) were forward passes.
Against Sunderland, with Ramsey in Cazorla’s place, Özil found Arsenal’s most advanced central midfielder on 31 occasions, twice playing the ball into Ramsey in the box. That’s just one fewer than he’s played the ball to Cazorla in the box all season. Of the 31 passes from Özil to Ramsey, 12 (38.7%) went forwards. (These numbers were tediously counted by myself after looking up pass maps on FourFourTwo‘s ‘Stats Zone‘.)
(For what it’s worth, Özil passed to Ramsey more times (31) on Saturday than he has to Cazorla in a game all season. Özil to Cazorla has only been a pass combination more than 16 times in one match – West Brom away.)
Playing Ramsey ‘behind’ Özil helps both players play their very best football. When those two are at their best, Arsenal are too. Özil (among others in the Arsenal side) creates space, Ramsey exploits it, and the German has the vision and ability to then create chance after chance. More passes head forward, a higher proportion of Özil’s passes head into dangerous areas, and Arsenal have more men in the final third to occupy the opposition.
Scoring in the dying moments of Saturday’s game, Ramsey looked pretty relieved. No wonder, after he’d already fluffed two big chances. But isn’t that the point with Ramsey? From centre-midfield, he regularly gets into positions for big chances to happen.
With Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott far from guaranteeing Arsenal 30 goals a season, it’s crucial that others score. We can’t afford to rely on a striker to score, Özil creates a lot but doesn’t have many chances himself, and the burden on Alexis is huge. Santi Cazorla has spent the last year in central midfield but scored fewer goals in that time than Aaron Ramsey did on Saturday.
Ramsey is more than capable of reaching double figures every season, thanks to his desire to get into the box. The movement is usually good, the timing is generally superb. The finishing sometimes needs work, but consistently getting into good positions is the best place to start. Being athletic enough to do so without compromising his position defensively, Ramsey has a skill set that Arsenal can’t continue to waste.
If injuries have been the cloud looming over north London in recent weeks, the prospect of seeing Aaron Ramsey in the middle of the park on a weekly basis again is a big, thick, glistening silver lining.
Arsène Wenger recently said, “I am a facilitator of what is beautiful in man”. The manager now has to recognise that Aaron Ramsey is a facilitator of what is beautiful in Mesut Özil.