What a difference two weeks make. At Anfield, Aaron Ramsey was withdrawn at halftime for Francis Coquelin, as a precautionary, though if you were to listen to critics like Gary Neville, it was down to Ramsey having his back to play as Liverpool scored. To be fair to Ramsey, he was hardly the only guilty party, and he was so far removed from the play that it’d barely make any difference. Post match, and post the Stoke City match, the discourse centred over Ramsey’s “indiscipline”, a frequent charge over the past few years.
It is not Ramsey’s temperament that is the issue. As he has shown for Wales, he can be disciplined in a deeper midfield role. Rather, it is the task that Arsene Wenger has given him in the 3421. At the role’s best, it sees Ramsey as a devastating attacking force, as Chelsea found in the FA Cup final in May, and as Bournemouth found yesterday.
Bournemouth attempted to match Arsenal’s system, with Dan Gosling and Harry Arter in midfield, and the hardworking Joshua King presumably told to stick closer to Granit Xhaka. The movement of Arsenal’s players, though, rendered Eddie Howe’s tactics useless inside 10 minutes. Mesut Özil pushed up higher up the pitch, Alexandre Lacazette and Danny Welbeck dropped off him before making dangerous diagonal runs, and Aaron Ramsey was everywhere, pushing behind Arter and Gosling.
Ramsey’s darts forward have several purposes, beyond trying to get into goal-scoring positions, which he did less of against Bournemouth. Indeed, the primary purpose is to create space and get Arsenal higher up the pitch, with Granit Xhaka operating at the base of midfield to spread play. After that, Ramsey can combine with the attacking players, be it Mesut Özil or Alexis or Lacazette, or the wing-backs, as he did for Arsenal’s first, playing a neat one-two with Sead Kolasinac, allowing the Bosnian to burst into space and cross for Danny Welbeck.
What Ramsey’s bursts also do is allow Mesut Özil to seek out space. The German was all over the pitch on Saturday, playing a significant part in Lacazette’s goal from a deeper position, while also creating chances, including one for Ramsey, higher up the pitch. Arsenal played with greater fluidity, and one reason was the ability to get Özil on the ball in space and playing higher up the pitch, in part thanks to Ramsey’s runs.
Arsenal also kept control of the match in a way they rarely have this season. One reason was Bournemouth’s dire play; but Arsenal also pressed well, and won the ball in Bournemouth’s half, as Lacazette and Ramsey did before the latter slid Welbeck in to make it 3-0.
The challenge for Wenger, then, is to ensure that Arsenal have the crucial attacking movement from Ramsey without sacrificing defensive solidity against better opponents, such as Chelsea. While it worked in the FA Cup final, because Arsenal’s pressing was superb, it failed miserably at Anfield; too often Arsenal’s midfield was isolated, and it was too easy for Liverpool to play through the midfield. If Chelsea are allowed the same space, Arsenal will again be hammered. The key will be for Wenger to adequately get his team in shape during transitions. Part of that will be ensuring that the distance between the lines is not too great, and that the team presses as a unit, rather than as individuals.
Performances against Chelsea in the FA Cup final and Community Shield show that this can be done. With the Europa League offering Wenger a chance to rotate his team, there is no excuse not to get the system right.