Speaking just after Arsenal’s 2-1 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur in October, Aaron Ramsey acknowledged he can – or rather, must – get better. “I have produced some good performances so far and maybe just need to be a bit more consistent throughout games,” he said. This was after a North-London Derby in which he came under a lot of flak despite scoring the equaliser for Arsenal. One of the criticisms was that his passing was unnecessarily ambitious – an absurd argument it might be felt, considering this was Arsenal but Arsenal was also going through one of the roughest times in its near history. However, after the defeat, we wrote that the team “was still searching for their identity” but since then, they have gone on an eight-game unbeaten run in the league.
Aaron Ramsey’s role in that sequence has been largely unheralded. It’s not that he hasn’t been pivotal – Mikel Arteta and Alex Song have been more so in the middle – and he’s made important contributions. A clever dink to find Gervinho in the 5-3 win over Chelsea capped off a brilliant performance after which Michael Cox of ZonalMarking.net hailed Ramsey as a better prospect than Jack Wilshere. He’s Wenger’s go-to man as well, usually tasked with tactical briefs before the match or at half-time with the main objective of taking the game “by the scruff of the neck.” The first signs of that were against Bolton Wanderers when he was pushed higher more closely resembling the formation to a 4-2-3-1 shape as Wenger sought to take advantage of Ramsey’s energy; the Welshman covers the most amount of ground in the Premier League. The same tactic was deployed against Tottenham, where he scored his first goal and the other time against Marseilles where he got his second. Perhaps that’s natural to give instructions to a young player as Ramsey as older heads need less guidance but once again it highlights the detail of the role he is playing.
In recent games, Aaron Ramsey has been pushed higher from the start of the match and there might be a few reasons for that. Perhaps, Arsenal have gotten over their fears at the start of the season and are more confident that they can remain secure for the majority of the match. Essentially though, this was perhaps Wenger’s preferred set-up, having one of the midfielders in a three push up further forward so the formation can flit in-and-out of a 4-3-3 and a 4-2-3-1. With Ramsey, they can win the ball higher as he did in the lead up to Arsenal’s winner at Norwich City. It’s a tactical role and that’s likely to be the case against Manchester City. It’s not exactly the “free” role that Cesc Fábregas played last season but it has some similarities. Ramsey’s through passing has progressively gotten better and not just making five assists in all competitions, he also has five pre-assist (as in the pass just before the actual assist). Ramsey also often presses higher than Robin van Persie and is the first to back him up. His brief, at many times, is to mark the first-passer in midfielder (he did so up against Luka Modric) and against Manchester City, that is likely to be the in-form Gareth Barry. But in a battle of two 4-2-3-1’s, it’d be movement that will be key and that’s where Aaron Ramsey’s drive might be crucial.
Because neither side is likely to play with recognised full-backs – or at least on the correct side (although Micah Richards, if fit, will be a huge threat) – therefore the game will probably be split into two obvious defensive/attacking splits. The four Arsenal defenders will mark and follow the four City attackers while Ramsey just might be the one who finds a bit of space. Knowing the full-backs won’t provide the same attacking thrust as Andre Santos and Carl Jenkinson did earlier this season, Wenger might feel he can afford to take the risk and commit an extra body forward because he’ll have enough back anyway. Such highlights the trust Wenger’s has in Aaron Ramsey and the confidence that he can deliver in the biggest game this season.
Arsenal (4-3-3): Szczesny – Djourou, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Vermaelen – Arteta, Song, Ramsey – Walcott, Gervinho, Van Persie.
Subs: Almunia, Rosicky, Arshavin, Frimpong, Chamakh, Benayoun, Miquel.
Man City (4-2-2-2): Hart – Richards, Lescott, Kompany, Zabaleta – Toure Yaya, Barry – Silva, Milner – Aguero, Balotelli. Subs: Pantilimon, Dzeko, Johnson, Savic, Nasri, Toure, De Jong.