Arsenal’s 0-2 Premier League victory away at Manchester City on January 18, marked a transitional moment in the tactical evolution of Arsene Wenger’s side.
Not only did Francis Coquelin establish his credentials as a top-flight holding-midfielder less than a month after being recalled from a loan deal at Charlton Athletic, the Spain playmaker Santi Cazorla also produced arguably his finest ever performance in an Arsenal shirt playing at the base of the midfield.
Wenger had never previously deployed Cazorla, a natural number 10, so deep in his starting side and a consequence of the move was that Aaron Ramsey, a natural number eight, pushed higher up the pitch to partner Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Alexis Sanchez in a fluid three-man attack behind Olivier Giroud.
The success of the Coquelin-Cazorla axis was such that Wenger hardly altered the core of his team for the rest of the season, and once Mesut Ozil returned to the starting 11 after injury, Ramsey moved out to the right of the Arsenal frontline. The effectiveness of this unorthodox midfield configuration is attested to by the fact that Arsenal won 11 and drew three of the 16 Premier League fixtures which followed the City result and thumped Aston Villa 4-0 to retain the FA Cup in May.
However, memories of Ramsey’s outstanding 2013/14 campaign, a season in which the Welshman scored 16 goals – including the winner in the FA Cup final against Hull – and contributed nine assists from central midfield, meant that Wenger’s positioning him on the right wing always felt like a short-term formula.
The thrust and dynamism that the 24-year proved himself capable of bringing to the heart of the Arsenal midfield was simply too rare a commodity for Wenger to pass-up, and the player made no secret of his desire to revert to his natural position in an interview with The Independent’s Tom Sheen in the build-up to the 2015/16 season.
“That’s my target now,” Ramsey said when asked if he wanted to play more centrally. “That’s what I’ll be looking to do. That’s where I think my best position is, that’s where I feel comfortable. Obviously, I did a job for the manager, which he asked me to do at the end of last season and, hopefully, I can get back in there, stay fit and healthy and have a good year.”
The fact that Arsenal won eight and drew three of their first 14 fixtures of the new league season meant that Ramsey ultimately had to rely on Coquelin and Cazorla getting injured in order to start in central-midfield. But since lining-up alongside Mathieu Flamini at the heart of Wenger’s team at home against Sunderland on December 5, the Welshman has clicked into top-gear.
Ramsey contributed a goal and an assist in helping Arsenal to end a three game winless league run against the Black Cats, he created one of Giroud’s three goals away against Olympiacos in the Champions League last Wednesday, and produced a man-of-the match performance at Aston Villa yesterday afternoon.
The former Cardiff player was imperious against Remi Garde’s side, submitting a display of such drive and energy that the idea he would play anywhere other than in the center of the park seemed absurd. Ramsey broke the seasonal Premier League record for covering the biggest distance over 90 minutes – 12.37km – and the nature of his 38th minute goal typified the Welshman’s game-breaking abilities as a box-to-box player.
After dispossessing Idrissa Gueye with a crunching tackle on the edge of Arsenal’s penalty area to set up a counterattacking opportunity, Ramsey sprinted 70 yards to arrive on the end of Mesut Ozil’s cutback from the right hand side of the Villa box before sweeping the ball past a helpless Brad Guzan in the home goal.
In this context the Guardian’s tactics columnist Michael Cox described Ramsey as “one of the few” Premier League footballers “who can reasonably be described as a true box-to-box midfielder.”
For all of the control and passing options which Cazorla brings to Wenger’s midfield, that was a goal the Spaniard would never have been capable of scoring. Indeed, Cazorla has not scored from open play for Arsenal in over a year, and Ramsey’s form over the last two weeks suggests that the Spaniard may be hard-pressed to regain a starting spot when he returns from injury in February.
[Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images]