It feels strange to talk about Aaron Ramsey and Mikel Arteta as a ‘new’ central midfield combination. After all, the Welshman is into his fifth campaign as an Arsenal player, while Arteta’s status in the squad is underlined by his status as stand-in captain.
However, the duo have rarely started together in the centre of midfield since Arteta’s arrival. Last season, Alex Song played at the base of midfield, with Arteta playing higher up as a pure passer. Ramsey’s role was usually at the top of the triangle, driving forward into attack - not a position he favours.
"This season, Ramsey benefits from Arteta’s discipline and... he is afforded great freedom and plays more of a box-to-box role, helping out in midfield and storming forward into attack"
Song’s departure meant a new role for Arteta, as Arsenal’s deepest midfielder, while Ramsey was also used in a different role at the start of the campaign - out wide, drifting inside to become an additional midfielder. With Abou Diaby enjoying a strong run in the side at the start of the season, Arteta and Ramsey only started three Premier League games together in central midfield before Christmas (the 3-1 win at West Ham, the 1-0 defeat at Swansea and the 0-0 at Aston Villa) because of Jack Wilshere’s return.
In recent weeks, things have changed. Theo Walcott’s good form means Ramsey is rarely used on the right, while Diaby and Wilshere’s fitness problems have encouraged Arsene Wenger to field Ramsey in a deeper role alongside Arteta. Therefore, they’ve started together in Arsenal’s last seven Premier League games.
Pleasingly, the partnership has worked very smoothly, with that run producing five wins and two draws. Arteta, while not a natural defensive midfielder, has coped very well with his change in position. “I’m playing in a deeper role this year now that Alex Song has left,” he says. “It’s a very important job, balancing the team between attack and defence… I know that I can’t go forward as much as I used to, and I need to sacrifice more in attack, but if it’s beneficial for the team I’m more than happy to do it.”
Arteta is a feisty tackler and intelligent with his positioning, while he retains that ability to play reliable passes towards attacking players. Last season, Song developed an ability to move forward and create chances, but as the ‘second’ midfielder in the partnership, Arteta often had to drop back and cover.
This season, Ramsey benefits from Arteta’s discipline. The Spaniard effectively covers two roles - as Arsenal’s defensive midfielder and, like last season, the most prolific passer in the Premier League ahead of Yaya Toure and Michael Carrick. This means Ramsey is afforded great freedom and plays more of a box-to-box role, helping out in midfield and storming forward into attack.
"Ramsey does a bit of everything. He passes, he tackles, he presses and he makes sure Arsenal don’t become a ‘broken’ side"
“You need to stay in that one position to get consistency that way,” he said in March. “Different things are going through your mind when you are playing out right to when you are playing through the middle.”
In the centre, Ramsey is essentially the player that connects everyone else. With Arteta passing from deep, Santi Cazorla and Tomas Rosicky creating between the lines of opposition defence and attack, and Theo Walcott and Arsenal’s centre forward (either Olivier Giroud or, with the Frenchman’s suspension in recent weeks, Lukas Podolski) providing incision and goalscoring threat, Ramsey does a bit of everything. He passes, he tackles, he presses and he makes sure Arsenal don’t become a ‘broken’ side. His all-action role means he has caught the eye in recent weeks, and he was voted Arsenal’s player of the month for April.
When on form, Ramsey is a particularly combative player. In a physical 0-0 draw against Everton he won four of his five tackles, but his performance away at Fulham was particularly interesting - his three tackles all took place close to the Fulham box, winning possession quickly. “We’re working as a team, winning the ball back in dangerous positions high up the pitch and everyone, not just one or two of us, is doing that,” he says.
His energy is also crucial to this part of his game - he and Arteta don’t always have defined sides of the partnership, instead moving from left to right as they see fit. Ramsey’s stamina has improved considerably this season, and he covers a lot of midfield ground.
While Arteta averages more passes per game, recently Ramsey has been Arsenal’s chief passer, especially when the opposition sit deep. In those situations, the Welshman finds a lot of space - opponents sit back with two banks of four, while their attacking midfielder picks up Arteta. But Ramsey is free to buzz around in between.
As the chalkboard shows, Ramsey has often misplaced passes in the final third, but that’s only because he’s trying to play intricate through balls. With Arteta as the deep midfielder, Arsenal don’t need another ‘safe’ passer.
The one area he must improve upon is his goalscoring. He’s only scored once all season - in stoppage time against Olympiakos back in early October. He’s taken 41 shots without finding the net in the Premier League, and although Ramsey has enjoyed an encouraging season in central midfield, there’s an obvious area to improve upon for next season.
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