During the invincible season Arsenal were completely dominant in midfield, which owed much to the world class talent we had the time. We also had a fantastic central partnership in Gilberto Silva and Patrick Vieira, and the supporting cast of Edu and Ray Parlour were great squad options when called upon.
It was Parlour, when he played, that really ate up the yards on the park. A pre-Arsene Wenger signing and a firm fan favorite, he’d played in various positions for the Gunners over the years and had a deserved reputation for providing the odd moment of pure magic, as well as putting in maximum effort for the cause.
Parlour’s appointment as captain during Vieira’s ban was a massive contributor to the invincibles success. His relentless energy and industry kept the pressure on our opponents while the driving presence of Vieira was unavailable. He was released by the club in 2004/2005, and that same summer Wenger signed Mathieu Flamini from Marseille for £1m during the time he was aggressively recycling his squad with young talent, ready to begin the penny-pinching early years of the Emirates move.
Flamini made a few appearances in that and the following two seasons, but he initially looked a bit of a square peg in this silky arsenal circle. He didn’t really stand out as a talent in the middle although he worked hard defensively and played a pretty simple game. His first real break came in 05/06 when he was called in at left back during an injury crisis, and he showed admirable versatility… it would have required an enormous amount of concentration from a right-footed central midfielder. To his credit he did very well and was part of a record-breaking champions league back line that year although a central midfield berth still eluded him, and he again found himself limited to a bit-part role as Gilberto Silva’s experience was preferred alongside the precocious Cesc Fabregas for the 06/07 season.
An early injury to Gilberto in 07/08 gave Flamini the chance to earn his spot in the middle. Preseason predictions from press and pundits were typically negative, and with the inexperienced Flamini alongside a teenage Cesc Fabregas Arsenal weren’t given a hope of retaining our position in the Champions League, let alone gunning for the title. What few people had noticed before then since he hadn’t had many opportunities to really show it, was that Flamini had a special talent.
Like Ray Parlour before him, Flamini had an almost limitless engine. He would run for days. His stamina in central midfield offered passing and defensive support to the entire carousel of players around him and was key to the fantastic run that our young squad put together… by January of that season we’d only lost one game.
The focus he showed during his stint at left back was again apparent in the way he applied himself to being the perfect foil for Cesc and they were one of the best partnerships in Europe. Arsenal’s regular possessional dominance, plus finishing four points off the Premier League and European Champions is proof of that as far as I’m concerned even if history tells us we finished third. Another year together and who knows… they were all young enough to have shown natural improvement. We all know what happened that summer and our perfectly balanced midfield of Alex Hleb, Tomas Rosicky, Fabregas and Flamini was ripped apart. Flamini moved on to AC Milan, but I honestly think that he left Arsenal a bit early. He still had things to learn but to be honest that’s a whole topic by itself, and the subject of another blog which I’ll cover another week.
The summer Flamini left, in came Aaron Ramsey. Next in line for their first team chances were Denilson and Alex Song, and a young Ramsey broke into the squad a year later. He looked a brilliant prospect but as we all know, he suffered a horrific injury at Stoke City that put him out of action for a year. On his return he spent a few months on loan to Cardiff City before returning to the Arsenal setup.
When Rambo came back to the Arsenal fold he was understandably out of sorts for a while, but the departures of Fabregas and Nasri that summer and our limited squad options saw Ramsey in the number 10 role which for years had been the hub of our creativity. Not ideal for a kid shorn of confidence, trying to get back in tune with a leg that had been cut in half. His touch and technique were letting him down and the fans’ focus at the time was on the negatives during a very trying season.
The question for fans that the time was ‘why Ramsey when he’s clearly struggling? Why not buy someone better when there’s money in the bank?’
Because Ramsey also has a special talent which is vital to the makeup of Wenger’s squad. The boss was using that talent along with the unpredictability and directness of Gervinho, to apply a less possession-based pressure to the opposition in their half. He was stitching over the loss of understanding and creativity through the Fabregas and Nasri departures.
Like Parlour and Flamini before him, Rambo has incredible energy. He’s perpetual motion. Wenger likes having that option and has since used Rambo quite regularly in different areas of the field with the same remit: to deny our opposition the clarity of time and space to think, denying them easy options and keeping them under constant pressure.
You’ll notice I’ve said little about his distribution and his attacking play… that’s because although it’s getting better it still needs work, but the tactical experience he has gained is now enough to merit his inclusion as a vital piece of the Arsenal squad.
He’s the one that makes us look sometimes like we have 12 men. He is everywhere. Challenging on the ground and in the air, closing down, pressing, sniffing around for the second ball, shutting down counter attacks, doubling up on wide threats, providing an out ball to relieve pressure, creating 2 v 1s against opposition full-backs, tracking runners, shutting off the angles for easy forward passes from the opposition and funneling them into less dangerous areas where we can press the ball. He has an insane engine. He’ll run for days. That’s enough to make him useful to Wenger during a year in which he doesn’t have the creative options available to him, and from an alchemical point of view makes a lot of sense:
If he learns through positional experience how to behave in different areas of the pitch and keeps trying to do the right things, he’s already doing half the job at a very high level. It’s a huge part of the efficiency that Wenger looks to coax from his young players. When he regains the confidence and ability that we saw before his leg was cut in half, he becomes a complete midfielder. The developmental opposite to most young players, tactical nous had to come before technique because his injury stalled his technique. But the boss has mitigated that loss by giving him the space to grow tactically, otherwise he’d have stalled for longer.
For the preceding season and a half Wenger had played Ramsey in different positions on the field to give him game perspective. In the last third of 2012/2013, Ramsey married that perspective with his special talent: he used his engine to drive the team and he was immense over the final part of the season.
Because he now has perspective he can be Rambo anywhere on the park, box to box and back again for 90 mins. When he’s up on the left wing I don’t know about you but I never really expect him to do a stepover, breeze past his man and whip a ball in. He has that in him
but at this stage it’s not really his remit. When he’s confident enough he’ll play jazz with his game, the rest will have already become natural to him. For now he’s more likely to try and retain possession to let his teammates get closer, and provide a sounding board for some triangles until someone is in a bit of space, which worked for us in the latter part of last season since we again lacked creativity. It gave us that ‘defensive possession’ the boss often talks about.
Defensive possession tempts the opposition into making a mistake and opening up.
If you’re pinging passes around the zone in front of the opposition area you’ve owned that territory and boxed them in. If they want to win it back they have to come out for it which leaves space behind.
With Mikel Arteta sitting deep and Ramsey doing the hard yards to offer constant support for the carousel of players around him, there was always an extra outlet for them which made it harder for the opposition to come out for the ball. Their strikers would often be forced deeper to compensate, which compromised their outlet options if they did win it back. If they managed to win it we’d already have Arteta in front of the usually solitary out-ball and Kieran Gibbs, Bacary Sagna, Theo Walcott, Ramsey, Rosicky and Santi Cazorla all buzzing around them, forcing them into ceding possession again.
It meant that even if we weren’t creative we could outmanouvre the opposition.
When you think about the situation just prior to the Bayern Munich return leg it was an extremely smart move from Wenger, who was under big pressure to sign a DMC to shore us up defensively during the January window. He could have bought; there were well-publicised options available. Instead he opted to do some real coaching during a developmental year and utilise an attribute that he already had at his disposal to further complete the squad, giving this group of players a ‘failsafe’ style to which they can always revert if necessary.
By helping Ramsey to tune his engine he gave him the tactical guidance both offensively and defensively to solve a glaring problem in the team, trusted him, and gave him vital experience and confidence in his own ‘personality’.
He did it with the football.
Having a player that can run the opposition into the ground is extremely useful for a possession-based team. Ramsey is that piece, the perpetual motion that enables Arsenal to strangle the opposition and stop them playing (as we saw in the Bayern second leg) and/or pass them to death and keep them boxed in (as we saw numerous times during the run-in).
Hopefully if they haven’t already, readers of this article will consider this when they look for the impact and option that Ramsey brings to this Arsenal team, even if he may be a bit behind with his technique. But he’ll get there. Over the next year or so expect Rambo to continue to improve his passing accuracy and offensive concentration, and hopefully he’ll find his shooting boots (he does own a pair!) When you mix the technique and vision he showed in his younger years with his newly refined engine and tactical nous, we will have an outstanding midfielder.