Professor David Sumpter uses mathematics to show just why the German playmaker is such a diamond...
Everyone seems to have an opinion on Aaron Ramsey. Craig Bellamy has said that Mesut Özil should make way for the Welshman, so that Ramsey can play more centrally. Steven Gerrard has called him "the best attacking midfielder in the Premier League", agreeing with Bellamy that his "qualities are all in the middle". Frank Lampard isn’t so sure. He says that the 24-year-old should realise "that Özil is the No.10 and drop back in".
To make sense of all this advice it is important to understand Arsene Wenger’s system: in most of their matches this season, Arsenal have used a 4-2-3-1 formation. This can be seen in their passing network, below for a game earlier in the season against Crystal Palace.
In contrast to how formations are traditionally presented as regularly spaced out points, in the network above the position of each player is taken from what happened during the match. The circle for each player is the average position on the pitch from where they made a pass. The thickness of the lines is the number of passes these players exchanged.
From the network, we can see the 4-2-3-1 structure in action. The back four are, of course, Nacho Monreal, Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker and Hector Bellerin. The defensive midfield two are Santi Cazorla and Francis Coquelin, the attacking midfield three Alexis Sanchez, Özil and Ramsey. Olivier Giroud is up front, although Özil is also a long way forward.
What we see from this network is that Ramsey is not “stuck out on the wing”, as some commentators would have us believe
When all of his players are fit, this is Arsene Wenger’s preferred style of football. It was the formation that destroyed Manchester United in 19 minutes at the start of October. A domination of the area in front of the opposition’s penalty area.
What we see from this network is that Ramsey was not "stuck out on the wing", as some commentators believed before injuries to Coquelin and Cazorla allowed him to return to his 'favoured' position. He is on the right of an attacking midfield, but he is making and receiving passes from the centre of the opponent's half. He is right in the middle of all the action.
To get a better understanding of Ramsey’s role, below is his pass heat map for the first 10 weeks of this season in the Premier League.
The intensity of the shading indicates how many times Ramsey made a pass from that position on the field. The blue arrows indicate the average direction of those passes. Ramsey is clearly on the right, but he isn’t stuck out on the wing. He is central to Arsenal’s attack.
To give context to Ramsey, below is Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s pass heat map over the same period.
This is the heat map typical of a ‘traditional’ 4-4-2 right-wing midfielder, using the width of the pitch to launch attacks. Oxlade-Chamberlain, along with Joel Campbell, both provide Wenger with the alternative of widening his team’s attack.
Penalty area passing
In analysing Arsenal’s attacking midfield, there is one person that simply can’t be ignored: Özil. His passing heat map below is absolutely exceptional.
The heat fills all of the area around the box. There is one ‘hotspot’ on the left, but he is also on the right, and down the wings. Not only that, all the passing arrows point in towards the penalty area. This is where all his assists come from: 13 so far this season. No other player in the Premier League has a pass heat map like Özil’s. He is everywhere.
Wenger’s 4-2-3-1 works because all of his midfield players are comfortable in the tight spaces in front of and inside the box. There will always be discussion around a player like Ramsey, but there should have been no real issue about him competing with Özil or Cazorla for a place at the centre of Arsenal’s midfield. He was aleady there. Just look at the understanding between the two of them in this pre-season goal against Lyon.
In most matches, Arsenal’s attacking midfield play in the centre and they need Özil, Ramsey and Sanchez to work tightly with each other to create chances for each other and Giroud. Working together, all four of them are central to Arsenal’s current success.
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