Why Arsenal’s decision to allow Aaron Ramsey to leave is an error

Words By Alex Stewart Illustration by Philippe Fenner
February 8, 2019
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Aaron Ramsey is to leave Arsenal after 11 seasons with the club. The former Cardiff City player, who joined Arsenal for the 2008/09 season, has been a central cog in the Gunners’ midfield, playing either as an eight or a ten. He blends technical ability with physicality, a strong pressing and tackling game, and has weighed in with goals, scoring five or more in the Premier League in four seasons.

So why are Arsenal letting him go?

The obvious answer is money. While Unai Emery looks to put his stamp on things, the club’s wage bill is hampering him and Ramsey, who would both ask for and deserve a hefty contract, would add to that burden and further tie Emery’s hands in the market.

In addition, Arsenal have faced a behind-the-scenes power struggle that has seen the departure of Sven Mislintat’s analytical approach and the consolidation of Raul Sanllehi’s position. Sanllehi, who according to respected commentators like Rafa Honigstein values big name players and existing relationships over unearthing undervalued prospects, reportedly did not see the worth of keeping Ramsey. With Mislintat gone, Sanllehi’s view has won out and Ramsey is off to Juventus.

And by letting Ramsey go, the Gunners have made a mistake. Unai Emery’s Arsenal have largely reverted to his favoured 4-2-3-1 after experiments with other formations, and the key to his structure of play is the creation of overloads out wide. Key to this is the ability of the full backs to push up in support of the inside forwards, to create overlaps or for the ball carrying player to drive towards their man.

The aim is to create a situation where either the ball carrier can beat his man and then has options outside or inside to create a crossing opportunity or a shot, or where the player creating the overlap can then pull back a cross or drive closer to goal to cross from nearer or shoot.

This approach, however, can break down. Without incisive runs off the ball, Arsenal can, as they did against Manchester United in the recent FA Cup fixture, end up creating little passing triangles out wide without generating any penetration. This is especially fruitless if one of that triangle is the centre forward, as there is then little movement in the box either.

This is one of the facets that Ramsey brings. With his athleticism and ball control when running at pace, he is ideally suited to be either the runner who adds the dynamism – just look at his overlapping run for Arsenal’s goal against United – or the man who arrives late in the box to put the defence on the back foot or carve out a shooting chance.

Arsenal’s issue is that they need a link player in attack, someone who makes the late run, or bursts wide from a position that is unexpected and therefore adds the degree of uncertainty that creates chances and causes the opposition defence issues. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexnadre Lacazette are good forwards, but leaving only one man up, or relying on that man to drift over to assist with the creation of an overlap, means marking is easier and there is no surprise option from deep to cause problems.

Ramsey is the only Arsenal player who can consistently deliver that form of link-play – Alex Iwobi has some of the attributes but is less reliable and is often used wide anyway. Mesut Ozil is more creative, but less dynamic. Henrikh Mkhitaryan is an alternative, but the foundation of Ramsey’s natural game is exactly this sort of movement, and he’s more of a physical presence. Arsenal’s other midfielders, Lucas Torreira, Granit Xhaka, and Matteo Guendouzi, are all defensive; while Torreira could play in a more advanced role, that would sacrifice his defensive capabilities, something Arsenal can ill afford.

And Ramsey also adds something defensively. Arsenal are a pressing side under Emery, often looking to shift the opposition into a wide area with ball-orientated pressing, leaving the opposite flank more open. This then allows them to switch play once they’ve won back the ball, and attack in Emery’s favoured way.

Ramsey is excellent at leading the press in the midfield area. He’s positionally aware and his stamina, combined with his tactical intelligence either as an eight or a 10, mean that he can provide real impetus to Arsenal’s efforts to win the ball back high up the pitch, either in a direct counter-press when an Arsenal attack has broken down, or if the opposition are seeking to play the ball out from the back.

His eye for a quick, long pass also perfectly complements particularly Aubameyang’s yen for breaking past the last line of defence at pace, and this can be lethally effective for Arsenal on the counter; in addition, Ramsey can play as the fulcrum of the switch from one side to the other when Arsenal look to shift play and then, crucially, break forwards at pace to support that attack.

The departure of Ramsey to Juventus therefore leaves Arsenal with problems to address in both defence and attack, and the transition from the former to the latter. The Ramsey absence is both an absolute and a relative issue: absolute, because Ramsey is very good at things that are key to how Emery wants Arsenal to play, and relative because he is better at those things than anyone else Arsenal currently have.

Of course, his departure, and Ozil’s rumoured leaving, could free up funds to sign a younger replacement but it begs the question – if you already have Aaron Ramsey, why not just keep him?

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