With Sanchez a late withdrawal from the starting XI and Mesut Ozil in ho-hum form and under fire, Aaron Ramsay arguably stands as Arsenal’s most important attacking player. This isn’t really saying much, he generally is crucial to the success of Arsene Wenger’s team, providing sensible passing, elusive touches, turns and dribbling, and garnishing it all with a handy habit of getting into scoring positions. The way that Arsenal faltered when Ramsay spent a number of months out injured last season showed just how important the Welshman is to them.
In this match against Aston Villa, he comes up against a team currently sitting 2nd on the table, coming off a highly unexpected – though not when you look at Villa’s record at Anfield – victory over Liverpool last week. He matches up directly with recently capped Fabian Delph, a tigerish, snapping rover of a midfielder, and Manchester United loanee Tom Cleverly, who loves a hefty tackle or two. Arsenal are facing a buoyant team who seem to be finally clicking under Paul Lambert and, though Ron Vlaar is injured, luckily Villa have Philippe Senderos, who seems to be having some sort of defensive Renaissance. A superlative moment or two may be required from Aaron Ramsay, so can he deliver?
Ramsay begins the match dancing between the lines, like he does so well, looking to release runners, and is seen scurrying early into an attempted interception. He flits back and forth between being the pivot around which other streaking attackers run, and being the streaking attacker himself. He drifts forward at one point in the opening five minutes, all the way up to the line of the Villa defence, and is caught rather out of position as the ball is lost and Fabian Delph screams forward and shoots well. Ramsay may be need to be a little less adventurous, and be a little more discreet with his forward runs. He does just that on the 5 minute mark, and tries to slide in Welbeck after being ushered ahead by Ozil.
The way Arsenal are set up, Arteta is the first man to receive the ball from the centre backs, and Ramsay, and sometimes Ozil, ought to be the second. Cazorla and Oxlade-Chamberlain are the de-facto wingers here and hold less of a metronomic, responsible role than Ramsay does. It’s almost as if Ramsay is charged with being both an Ozil-type forward conductor, and an Arteta-type midfield lubricator, with flashes of inside forward-ness mixed in. A very dangerous hinge player indeed.
Ramsay then sets about his business in midfield, making himself available to Cazorla and Chamberlain as a backward pass option, recycling possession. The danger of Ramsay is the subtlety with which he slides forward, that one moment he’s a deep-lying player, then the next he’s collecting a ball over top into the box. Ramsay makes a bad error, giving the ball directly to an opponent while trying to slip the ball out of defence. This allows a cross to fly in, which is barely scrambled away.
A worrying trend begins to emerge however. With no proper holding midfielder, and with Ozil a liability when defending, Ramsay may be being asked to do too much. It is a waste to suppress Ramsay’s attacking instincts, but because Arteta can be overrun by pacey counter-attacks, Ramsay is needed to bolster the midfield shield. With Chambers and Mertesacker sometimes found wanting for mobility, without that shield the Arsenal defence is vulnerable to the pace of Agbonlahor. One such attack almost releases Agbonlahor, but his run is halted, ruled offside.
20 minutes in, Ramsay smashes a shot just wide from a corner. Two minutes later Villa waste the best chance of the match, from a free kick, Szczesny saves Clarke’s header. Villa begin to impart their will on the match, and Ramsay focuses on breaking up the passing of the Villa midfield. On the 26th minute, he does so impressively then flies forward, but his final pass to Welbeck is over-hit. Few teams fluidly counter-attack as well as Arsenal, so, though the stands are rocking with delight at Villa’s attacking vigour, a threat remains. Arsenal begin to quell the swelling Villa momentum and Ramsay is twice seen making a run into the box, after neat work from his team mates on the flanks.
Ozil scores a lovely opening goal on 32 minutes, released by a beautiful angled ball from Welbeck. The move is initiated by Ramsay, hitting a first time pass to Chamberlain, who immediately pings it to Welbeck, bypassing the whole Villa midfield. The German finishes the move with ease and his fiery roar afterwards shows just how much he needed this boost. Suddenly Arsenal have pricked up their ears and are pressing with intensity. After winning the ball back in Villa’s half, Ramsay collects the ball and shoots a pass out to Ozil on the left, who puts it on a plate for Welbeck. He scores calmly. Two goals, both coming from the swift passing combinations of Ramsay, Ozil, Welbeck and Chamberlain.
The moment gets worse for Villa, as Aly Cissokho scores a farcical own goal a minute later. Again, it’s Ramsay, Chamberlain and now Cazorla who frazzle the defence with an intricate series of flicks. The ball bounces out to Gibbs, whose off-target shot is turned in by Cissokho. The Villa defender likely feared the ball would dribble to the flanking Chamberlain and so he panicked and erred, badly. Three goals in four minutes. Villa are shell shocked.
Ramsay shows some keen awareness just before halftime, chipping a lofted ball from one side of the box to the other to set up Ozil, who screws a volley wide. Though the game seems largely over now, Ramsay is seen trailing behind the play as Delph again strides forward, and Arteta’s suitability for his role is neatly exposed as Delph jinks by his misplaced leg, and is fouled. But Ramsay finishes the half with another low, well-hit shot, that skids wide. Half time is whistled and an Arsenal victory is all but secured. Though Ramsay won’t appear as scorer or assister for any of the three goals, he was crucial in helping to activate the scenarios from which the goals came.
Ramsay begins the second half by showing his impressive passing range, hitting a perfect longer ball from inside his own half over the top to Chamberlain, who can’t apply a controlling touch. Chamberlain then turns provider for Ramsay five minutes later, hitting a fizzing diagonal pass across the turf, and now only the Welshman’s poor first touch stops a clear chance from being fashioned. Villa begin to lose all sense of urgency when it comes to winning the ball back and Arsenal are allowed pass freely and without pressure through the middle, with only unforced errors stopping the tiki-taka display. They sidle as a fleet-footed group up to the edge of the Villa box multiple times with ease.
But, the structural problems in Arsenal’s defensive midfield emerge again, when Agbonlahor races away with rare purpose. Ramsay, having been up the other end enjoying the passing exercise, is out of position again and, after the Villa man has outpaced Arteta, Ramsay has to foul Agbonlahor, earning a booking. Ramsay then inexplicably concedes a corner, bizarrely booting it over the touchline while under no pressure at all. Villa almost score from the corner, a block from Chamberlain saving an on-target effort from Clarke. A messy period, but one that passes.
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Arsenal begin to meander a little, and Villa admirably try to up the tempo, hustling and pressing. Cissokho surges down the left and out-muscles Ramsay, and then Jack Grealish finds some unoccupied space to occupy down that side as well. The final passes aren’t good enough though and Arsenal are content to deal with them. Meandering, meandering. Occasionally, Ramsay forays forward, almost on a whim, and other times he stays back, providing a reserved outlet option to pass to. As time marches on, and Villa get more morose, Arsenal pick them apart at will, with both Ozil and Chamberlain cutting through into the box.
Ramsay is substituted with 13 minutes to go, replaced by Jack Wilshere. His afternoon’s work was a largely satisfying one, where he had a hand in all 3 goals. The defensive mismanagement of Arsenal’s midfield is hardly Ramsay’s fault, in fact, he is often the victim of it. Some conspicuously poor touches and strange errors punctuated his performance, but his willingness to receive the ball, his guile and invention with it, and his effortless dovetailing with his nimble colleagues set Arsenal on their way to victory.