At the age of 26, Aaron Ramsey should be a top-class footballer bordering on world-class. Goalscoring midfielders are worth their weight in gold and even more so now than ever before; between 2010/11 and 2016/17, the percentage of goals from central midfielders, the number of central midfielders scoring goals and the number of goals from distance have drastically declined in the Premier League.
Ramsey should stand out as a rare talent, one the rest of the big six are desperate to pry from Arsenal’s clutches. Just look over at the other side of north London and how demanded Dele Alli is at this moment in time.
And yet, there is one vital ingredient missing from Ramsey’s game that has stopped him reaching his utmost potential as he enters his peak years – positional discipline. Indeed, Ramsey is now 306 games and ten seasons into his Arsenal career after being plucked from Cardiff City as a teenager, but it’s still not clear what kind of midfielder he actually is or what his best role is in the engine room.
He offers some of the dynamic qualities of an offensive box-to-box, but the goal threat, creative ambitiousness and movement of a No10, and has even spent some of his Arsenal career trying to influence from the wing.
In some instances, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing; Kevin De Bruyne has the tools to impact from countless positions and the aforementioned Alli can operate, in theory, as a central midfielder, an attacking midfielder, a wide forward or even a support striker.
But while that’s more a case of different positions bringing out different talents in high-quality individuals, Ramsey’s rotation around the midfield has been more a consequence of him not perfectly fitting any of them, because he’s never been moulded around a specific role and because the rest of the team hasn’t been geared around his greatest strength – chiefly, making smart and bold runs into the box to support the striker.
Watch the Welshman closely in any given Arsenal game; the number of times he bursts forward to become the spare man in a counter-attack or drifts to find a yard inside the box is actually quite exceptional. While some would label that typical Arsenal naivety, it can be an invaluable tool when used in the right way.
The problem though, is what happens when the ball’s turned over – Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez don’t drop deep to cover him, Granit Xhaka is left to marshal the whole midfield single-handed and the Gunners suddenly find the opposition marauding through the middle of the pitch towards their own goal.
The solutions are simple; either the team is shaped in a way that provides the protection for those ambitious forward runs, deploying Ramsey further forward, or the Welshman is trained to time those moments more accurately. But Ramsey’s potency has been evident since his unforgettable 2013/14 season and in the three years since, albeit disrupted by injury problems, Wenger has done nothing to facilitate or further embellish the defining attribute of his game. Instead, Ramsey plays his own natural game regardless of what position he’s deployed in, no matter how detrimental it may be to the rest of the team.
Of course, no player has the divine right to be a top-class footballer; it’s about so much more than god-given ability. But if a manager had moulded Ramsey to become one thing or the other – a supporting striker, an attacking midfielder, an offensive box-to-box – there’s every chance he would be revered as one of the best in the business right now rather than simply one of the best of the rest.
His performances for Wales are evidence enough; placed in a disciplined role in a disciplined team, and the fits and spurts of pure quality still stand out amid all the hard work. At Arsenal, he just isn’t given that same direction and the tactical naivety of his game is as evident as the attacking verve he offers.
The buck must stop with Wenger, not just because he’s overseen the vast majority of Ramsey’s development. Indeed, in recent years there have been abundance of Arsenal players not quite reaching their full potential who don’t quite belong to one position or role.
Theo Walcott still isn’t a relentlessly quick winger or a free-scoring poacher; Jack Wilshere isn’t quite a No.10, a box-to-box or a deep-lying playmaker; Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is a winger modified into a wing-back who wants to play central midfield; even Calum Chambers finds himself somewhere between a right-back and a centre-half, while picking up game-time in neither.
There’s nothing wrong with versatility if you’re genuinely effective in more than one position. But do any of the aforementioned players truly have a full, in-depth understanding of any of the above roles? Have any of their games been natural modified and geared towards them? On the most part, it’s players playing their own games, just in slightly different positions depending on where they’re named on the team-sheet. Some top-class footballers do get that licence, but Arsenal surely haven’t produced so many that half the team can be selected in one position or the other, allowed to dictate terms of their own roles.
Of course, Wenger has always been one to enrich natural creative and technical qualities rather than tie players down with tactical theory, discipline and responsibilities. But there must be a balance and in many ways, Ramsey highlights the failings of the development at Arsenal over the last decade. Some great young prospects have emerged, but few have learned to use those their talent to become a functioning part of the team.
As a No.10 or central midfielder, Ramsey could be one of the very best. But now verging upon his peak, it already feels too late for Ramsey to truly mould into either.