Category Archives: Aaron Ramsey

Chambers’s versatility: an asset or a liability?

As we appear to approach closer and closer to a deal on Southampton’s Calum Chambers, the talk has focused on his youth and his versatility. Having played as a right-back, centre-back, and as a defensive midfielder, Chambers seems to check several boxes: he can compete with Debuchy (and Jenkinson?) at right-back while also supporting or competing with Kos, Per, and Verm at center-back. In a pinch, it’s possible that he could also slot in in the defensive midfield. All of this versatility should feel very reassuring as we fret over our options—will Vermaelen stay? Will we land Schneiderlin or Khedira? Absent any certainty around these and other questions, Chambers seems to settle our stomachs a bit. Should he, though? A quick review of other similarly “versatile” players should give reason for pause.

Chief among these cautionary tales would be one Jack Wilshere. For as wonderful and as occasionally breath-taking as he’s been, he’s struggled to find a regular position. Part of this, to be sure, comes from injuries, fitness, and competition. Taking a longer view, though, Wilshere appears a bit unsettled. Is he to become an attacking midfielder? If so, he’ll be competing with none other than Mesut Özil, widely and justifiably regarded as one of the very best at what he does. If Wilshere cannot compete with Özil, well, there’s no shame in that, is there? Casting about, the next most-natural location would be in the defensive midfield role. With Arteta and Flamini declining, it’s only natural that we look to Wilshere to step up as our next holding midfielder.

Unfortunately, as I’ve discusssed here, that role doesn’t suit him. He’s not a shielder, nor is he a tackler. He’s more comfortable at and better-suited to bombing forward, wreaking havoc in our opponents’ defensive third. That’s wonderful, and it’s something he’s very good at—but he may not be the best in the squad, not with Ramsey’s resurrection. As such, Wilshere has to carefully consider his career: to what position should he commit? Versatility, even in a system as fluid as Arsène’s, can become an albatross around one’s neck. That versatility, arguably, has hampered Wilshere’s progress just as much as injury has. It pains me mightily to write the following words: despite having been a Gunner since he was nine years old, he still hasn’t defined himself. Will he ever? I sorely want him to. It’s rare that we encounter a Gunner who’s also a Gooner.

Coming back to Chambers, what lessons can we draw from Wilshere’s experiences to this point? We’re told by none other than Arsène himself that the lad can play as many as three positions, four if we’re generous (right-back, centre-back twice, defensive midfield). That kind of flexibility is beguiling, especially as our pursuit of a ‘true’ defensive midfielder drags on. I almost feel as if I should create a key-board shortcut for “Khedira” and “Schneiderlin” just to avoid a few key-strokes. However, I worry that Chambers, like Wilshere, might struggle to define himself due to the very versatility that Arsène seems to admire. If the Chambers-Wilshere comparison doesn’t quite arrest your attention, perhaps a Chambers-Vermaelen one might? Like Wilshere, Vermaelen has found himself an odd man out, perhaps more because of form than injury, but hits ‘tweener status has relegated him to the end of the bench, so much so that the question “should Vermaelen be move to DM?” has become a bit of a running joke.

By contrast, consider Aaron Ramsey. For the first half of the 2012-13 season, he bounced around, displaying admirable versatility as he played as a winger, a defensive midfielder, and a right-back. None of this seemed to play to his strengths, skills, or aptitudes. He filled in well enough but didn’t drop jaws until he rediscovered himself as a box-to-box midfielder. Yes, his ability to fill in as needed was an asset to the club, but it wasn’t until he as allowed to play one role—as wide-ranging and all-encompassing as it was—that he truly started to shine. So I hope it will be with Wilshere. I would love nothing more than for the man to become the club’s most-talismanic player, even if it’s Ramsey’s name appearing in the spotlight more often.

If we are to complete a transfer for Chambers, I hope we learn a lesson from Wilshere’s fiftul progress and Ramsey’s spectacular season: commit the 19-year old to one position, rather than task him with learning the skills, mindset, positioning, and so many other elements of two or even three positions. Yes, a complete footballer should master all elements of the game, and, yes, becoming a complete footballer should know how to play as his own opposite in order to truly excel. However, at the risk of playing up a pun, one can be a jack-of-all-trades and an ace of none. If the pun rings true, then, where would Calum Chambers play? Would he sit behind Debuchy? At a reported £16m transfer-fee, that seems dicey. Would he commit instead to the defensive-midfield role? This might feel like a budget-buy (not that I’d put it past Arsène to pull such a move) after the pursuit of Khedira and Schneiderlin. Chambers is tall enough (1.82m) to play as a centre-back; could this be his destiny?

At some point soon, Chambers will have to commit to a position in order to become the kind of player he seems poised to become. Whether that’s to happen at Arsenal, Southampton, or some other club entirely is another question.

Is there still room in the squad for Jack Wilshere?

It’s hard to take much away from Tuesday’s dour draw with Costa Rica, what with England already eliminated and the Ticos basking in the glory of advancing on the strength of a draw (and winning the group thanks in part to the antics of one Luis Suarez, who sank his teeth into Chiellini and may have sunk Italy’s hopes in the process). In short, neither side, not the Three Lions nor the Ticos, had much on the line except perhaps pride in the former and bragging rights in the latter. In the end, then, Wilshere’s only start in the World Cup was abortive from the start. More worringly, it portends poorly for his future with both club and country.

#7 would be Wilshere, for enquiring minds…

Playing alongside Frank Lampard in a familiar-to-Arsenal 4-2-3-1, Wilshere played in a more-advanced role, letting Lampard occupy the deeper position. In Gunner terms, then, Wilshere played a role most-similar to the one Aaron Ramsey played so well while punting on the more-defensive elements of the position to the likes of Flamini or Arteta. Unfortunately for Wilshere, Ramsey has played that role with such aplomb that there’s little need for another starter who can play the pivot. What we need is a more conservative, defensive-minded midfielder who can shield the back four and break up opposition attacks. Suffice so say, that ain’t Jack.

He’s far more effective and interested in bombing forward to create chances for others—but this is a role that Ramsey has again excelled at to such an extent that Wilshere risks being reduced to second fiddle. His stats against Costa Rica—an arguably inferior if spirited side with little to play for—hardly convince that he can deliver or dominate from his preferred role: two key passes, no shots taken, one successful dribble and one time dispossessed. These are hardly the stats one might expect from a player who sees himself as the spark-plug that fires the engine. Against such opposition, and considering Wilshere’s near-legend status, we might have the right to expect a more dominating performance, if only in the chances-created department, where he only managed to deliver the two key passes. Even if England were only playing for pride, that doesn’t quite cut the mustard.

Wilshere himself seems to sense the urgency, even if that sensation may not have registered during the match:

It’s easy for me to stand here and say: ‘We’re young, we can go forward’, but if you look at Germany, a team like that, they’ve got young players who are delivering now….Time is running out for us to say we’re young any more. I’m 22. Ross [Barkley], Luke [Shaw] and Raheem [Sterling] are young players. They showed in the tournament what they can do. But in the next tournament, we really have to deliver. I think it is [a big year for me]. I’m not young any more. I’m going to be 23 in January and that’s a good age for a footballer. It’s a big season for me, it’s a big season for Arsenal. But at the moment, I’m devastated. I’ve got to try and get over this and then try to move on next season.

The problem for Jack is, where can he move on to? From which position can he deliver on the promise that we saw in a few years ago, such as in his scintillating performance against Barcelona in 2011? The role he played then may differ from the role we need him to play going forward, unless he and Ramsey can figure out how to take turns plunging into the heart of the opponent’s defense to create chances for others or for themselves. Simply put, someone has to stay home to help the back four, even moreso next season, what with Sagna gone. Whether it’s Jenkinson or Aurier or someone else at right-back, we will need someone who can shield that back-four. Let’s face it: Arteta and Flamini ain’t getting any younger.

Speaking of those two, they may each be put to pasture sooner rather than later, but it’s not too late for them to pass on the wisdom that comes from age, to Wilshere and to Ramsey. If the two of them can learn the better part of valor from Arteta (okay, and from Flamini), we might just see the emergence of one of the most dynamic defensive midfield/midfield pivots in some time. Picture it: Ramsey (or Wilshere) pressing forward, pinging passes back and forth with Walcott or Giroud or Podolski or Özil, while Wilshere (or Ramsey) hangs back to soak up opposition counters, only to pour forward himself while the other drops down to cover.

Pause a moment to think of how breath-taking that can be. Wilshere or Ramsey go in for a tackle at the top of our box, touch the ball to a teammate while getting back up, and then launching the counter. Whichever one is the lynchpin, it can become an intimidating blur, as one or the other drives deep into the defense while the other drops down to see what happens; as each alternates with the other, flummoxing defenders along the way, chances multiply for the Girouds and Walcotts of the world.

If only.

Whether by temperament, training, or ability, we can’t yet rely on a Ramsey/Wilshere pairing. It’s too tempting to imagine them dribbling and passing their way around and amid opposition defenses, and too easy to neglect the grittier, hum-drum responsibilities of staying home. If they could figure it out, it could bring Wengerball back to the fore—moving us past possession for possession’s sake towards possession with purpose. I can see it now: a delicate interplay between Wilshere and Ramsey at midfield as the more-forward lays the ball off to the more-defensive before relaunching the next attack.

For now, the burden of proof seems to lie at Wilshere’s feet. Injuries have sidelined him, and Ramsey’s talismanic form has allowed him to claim the attacking role while Arteta or Flamini have sat back to soak up pressure. If Wilshere can find his form and his role in the Arsenal squad, we might just witness some beautiful football in the very near future.  I’d love that.

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Ramsey at 23 > Fàbregas at 23 (and other heresies)

Amidst the heartache and recrimination of Cesc’s move to Chelsea, one source of solace has been the idea that we didn’t bring Cesc back in part because our midfield is already a bit crowded and, just as vitally, full of young, on-the-verge-of-breakthrough players. Chief among them, of course, has been Aaron Ramsey, whose emergence this season has been as breath-taking as it has exhilarating. Perhaps even more jaw-dropping is the idea that his performance is just the tip of the iceberg, interrupted as it was by a spell on the sidelines that coincided with the club’s stumble from the top of the table. As we look for consolation in the aftermath of Cesc’s “betrayal,” we need look no further than Aaron Ramsey.

Hush. Shh. It’s going to be alright…

At 23, Ramsey has had the kind of season that most of us might dream of—except for that three-month spell on the sidelines. In that one season, he scored more goals (16) than he had in all of his previous seven seasons combined (13). Along the way, he’s played all over the field—as a winger on the left, a winger on the right, at central midfield, and, of course, in the defensive midfield/box-to-box role to boot. It’s in that latter role that he’s come to shine brightest, as it’s a role that makes the most of his stamina, his desire to bomb forward and create, and his willingness to dig in for tackles. Attempt to label his position on the pitch as you will, he’s become a lynchpin, a talisman, a…a…captain?

By contrast with Ramsey, Fàbregas had already assumed the captaincy, anointed in the 2008-09 season at the tender age of 21. By that point, he had already astounded fans with his performances, whether they be measured by statistics or by passion, and it was in the following season that he delivered his best season for Arsenal, with 19 goals and 17 assists from 36 appearances. From there, however, there was a bit of a downward trend, as he tallied just 9 goals and 14 assists from 36 appearances. He would depart the club that same summer. It’s perhaps ironic that, in that same season, we saw Ramsey felled by the infamous Shawcross Scything, a moment that might have foretold the end of a promising career before it could even begin.

Fast-forward a few seasons, and we face up to the cold, hard reality that Cesc ain’t comin’ home—not, at least, to the right area of London. It would be easy to see this as an opportunity lost. After all, he’s still widely regarded as one of the world’s best at what he does. However, his stats, inflated as they are by the wide-open nature of La Liga, fail to impress, and his performance, undermined though it may be by his inability to earn a regular role, beg certain questions. Has Cesc already peaked? Have we seen his best already? After all, he’s now 27, hardly wizened but perhaps worse for wear. He was never known for his pace in the first place. He might bed in well with Chelsea’s more-cautious [cough] style, but, by the same token, he might have been a poor fit for Arsenal’s more-open, forward-thinking attack.

That brings us back to Ramsey. He’s not only more dynamic; he’s more diverse. Whereas we could count on Cesc to deliver scintillating passes and shots, his defensive role was always secondary. That’s not a slight against him; it’s more a description of his role. By contrast, Ramsey, deployed more deeply, offers passes and shots that might suffer in the aesthetic department when compared to Cesc’s, but he more than makes up for it in his willingness to go end to end and to go in for tackle after tackle. Rather than force you to suffer my attempts at describing the situation, I’ll hand it over to someone better-versed:

I watch the way Ramsey is playing now, how he looks so liberated, and I think maybe I blocked his way. Maybe I was an obstacle. Sometimes you need someone to leave for you to step forward and say: ‘I’m here.’ I’m saying that about Ramsey just as an example …Ramsey’s stamina is spectacular. Ramsey is one of those that you look at and think: ‘He doesn’t stand out in any specific quality, but he does everything, everything, well.’ His touch is good, his movement’s good, now he’s scoring goals too, providing assists. He’s a kid who as a team player is a beast. Above all, he now has the confidence, responsibility.

That, of course, would be Cesc. Setting aside the grandiose “I’m so great, I prevent others from becoming so” mentality, let’s admit what Cesc has pointed out. Ramsey has become (is becoming?) the kind of player around whom you build a club. The same was once said of Cesc. That didn’t turn out. He went home rather than face the cauldron of leading a club. In Ramsey, we have the next captain, the next talisman, maybe even the next legend. In the first, the captaincy, would Vermaelen or Arteta really stand in his way? In the second, the talisman, who else could rival him? In the last, the legend, well, only time will tell.

I daresay that Ramsey, at 23, might end up meaning more to this club than did Fàbregas. That’s a bit of a bold proclamation. Should Ramsey stick around, he might just prove those words prescient. Going a bit further out on a limb, the man might just help us forget altogether a certain Spaniard. I could live with that…

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