It took just one game to remind Aaron Ramsey exactly why he should embrace a position he doesn’t exactly like. When the Welshman used a typically impish flick to open the scoring for Arsenal in the north London derby against Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane, it was vindication for his return to the right wing.
Now it’s time for Ramsey to take to the change and run with it. Now’s the time for Ramsey to become Arsenal’s new Freddie Ljungberg.
It’s an experiment Gunners boss Arsene Wenger has tried, as far back as the 2012/13 season to be exact. But a position out wide became a more regular occurrence for Ramsey during the last campaign.
His move from the central confines he enjoys to the right flank provided Arsenal with vital balance in that season’s final months. Ramsey’s work rate and clever off-the-ball runs protected the Gunners defensively, while also adding greater fluidity to their attack.
Those runs off the ball are the main similarity Ramsey shares with Ljungberg.
At the time, Arsenal’s super swede was adored by fans, cheered as much for his flamboyance as for his lung-busting effort every match.
But it’s one of the strange ironies of Arsenal’s glory years under Wenger that Ljungberg is one of the least remembered players during that period’s relatively barren aftermath.
Ask any fan or pundit about the era from 2001-05, the halcyon epoch when Wenger’s awesome squad collected three FA Cups and two Premier League titles, and four names will come up most often: Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and Robert Pires.
But in his own way, Ljungberg was as important to Arsenal’s success as any member of that quartet. His perceptive movement off the flank and between the lines offered the perfect foil for the platoon of creative passers who populated Wenger’s squad.
Whether it was Vieira, Pires, Henry, Bergkamp or even Nwankwo Kanu threading the passes, Ljungberg was usually the target in the box:
Ljungberg’s runs in behind defences made him less an inverted winger and more of a supporting forward. Those runs were next to impossible to track for opposing teams because every time Ljungberg drifted slyly off the flank his movement posed markers a host of troubling questions.
If the full-back went with him, a chasm of space opened up for an overlapping run from any Arsenal player. If a centre-back picked Ljungberg up, extra room was created for the man on the ball to shoot or connect with whichever striker had been abandoned.
Say a midfielder dropped deep to track Ljungberg. All that did was give the player on the ball more time to thread his pass between the lines.
Having a wide player with missile-guided wanderlust made the Gunners a shape-shifting entity in the final third.
Formation images from thehardtackle.com and footballxtra show how this amoeba was formed on the pitch, with Ljungberg’s runs a key component:
Ramsey can pose the same conundrum to defenders during the remainder of Arsenal’s season, and his goal against Spurs proved it.
At the start of the move, the ex-Cardiff City prodigy was actually on the inside left. There’s that wanderlust again.
But as Ramsey drifted across into the box he actually became a No. 9. That run attracted left-back Danny Rose like a magnet.
As soon as he moved toward Ramsey, Arsenal right-back Hector Bellerin had the freedom of the wing and inside channel. Danny Welbeck found the Spaniard with all the space and time he needed to slide a smart pass in for Ramsey to flick home.
Two movements off the right side, pulled the Spurs defence apart and created a goal. There, in a nutshell, is the value of a roaming wide man. Ramsey is Arsenal’s best, whether he likes it or not.
He didn’t always enjoyed it last season, something Henry noted in his function as a pundit on Sky Sports Saturday Night Football: “He said, and we clearly understood because he said it two or three times, that he doesn’t like it much playing on the right of midfield. But this will do a job for the team.”
Henry was speaking after Arsenal’s 1-0 win at Burnley last April, a game won by Ramsey’s decisive contribution. The goal reinforced the value of playing Ramsey further forward.
He’s got a goalscorer’s instinct, specifically, the knack for always staying on the move in the box, a trait that helped him condemn the Clarets.
Those are qualities Ramsey shares with Ljungberg, who should act as an inspiration anytime the Welshman finds himself unhappy with life on the right. On those occasions, Ramsey should remember Ljungberg himself made an initially uncomfortable move from the middle.
He described the teething problems of the switch in Amy Lawrence’s brilliant Invincible:
“I had questions in my own head if I should stay or not. Arsene knows that. I played centre midfield or number ten. I’d played there my whole life. I’d never been a winger, and never in a million years thought he saw me as a winger. He explained that if I went out there, I had more freedom.”
(Page 72, Penguin Books, 2014)
Ramsey needs that same freedom to thrive. He doesn’t have it in central areas where the defensive requirements are often too much for him, something James Benge of the London Evening Standard recently highlighted by citing Opta statistics.
Playing Ramsey in the middle only emphasises what he can’t do. Putting him out wide up front gives him more chances to do what he does best: latch on to passes with clever runs and finish in the box.
It makes Ramsey a better player and Arsenal a more fluid attacking animal.