Tonight’s match against Liverpool represents a significant test of Aaron Ramsey's reinvention after the midfielder switched to a new role for Arsenal.
The 22-year-old Wales international appears at a crossroads. In his first full campaign after recovering from a horrific leg fracture sustained at Stoke in February 2010, Ramsey played a pivotal advanced midfield role last season, helping to offset the departures of Cesc Fabregas, the team’s playmaker, and Samir Nasri.
Fatigue inevitably set in towards the end of the campaign, which coincided with a drop in performances and the first murmurings of discontent among a few Arsenal supporters. Arsene Wenger did not exactly help the situation this season by deploying Ramsey in an unfamiliar wide position, usually on the left but occasionally on the right, where he played against Manchester City to good effect in September’s 1-1 draw.
There have been occasions when Ramsey has looked effective but either flank is not his natural home. Consequently, he is sometimes guilty of labouring in possession and his inconsistencies have led some supporters to grow increasingly frustrated with him.
Jack Wilshere, Mikel Arteta and Abou Diaby are well established as Wenger’s preferred central midfield triumvirate when fit and for all Ramsey’s qualities in a more advanced position — his man-of-the-match performance for Wales in their defeat by England at Wembley in September 2011 still lingers in the memory — Wilshere and Santi Cazorla are more attractive options nowadays.
But with injuries to Arteta and Francis Coquelin, Ramsey finds himself afforded a central position, albeit deeper than he is accustomed to. Against West Ham and Brighton, Ramsey displayed his adaptability once more following conversations with Wenger about exactly what was required to anchor Arsenal’s midfield.
However, a resurgent Liverpool, excusing last weekend’s FA Cup defeat by Oldham, represent a considerable step up from championship side Brighton and a West Ham team set up to contain their opponents.
Wenger believes Ramsey is ready. “He has a fantastic engine and fantastic qualities,” the Arsenal manager told The Evening Standard. “He has to use that in a very intelligent way. I believe he is an intelligent player who understands football well.
“If he can bring his qualities to the team play, he will be an absolutely outstanding player, which I think he will be. He takes things on board and tries to do what you ask him to do and in the last two games you could see a really positive transformation in his game.”
In terms of midfielders modifying their play, Ramsey need only look at the changes Steven Gerrard has made to his game, not out of positional necessity but because of the inevitable passage of time.
Gerrard adopts a more disciplined role these days — regular Liverpool observers would say not always to good effect — but the England captaincy has helped enhance his sense of team responsibility now he is now longer able to be the irresistible powerhouse who has driven the Reds forward so unswervingly for so long.
Wenger said: “His game today is more about distribution rather than being at the end of things. But his passes and crosses are still deadly. He is a bit more at the start of things whereas before he was more finishing things off. But he is still a great player. Brendan Rodgers gets Liverpool to play in a similar style that he had at Swansea.
“The most important thing for a manager is to know what he wants and be capable of transferring that. I think he is doing that well.”
The sides who are chasing a Champions League spot have shown such indifferent form that both Arsenal and Liverpool, who have suffered regular setbacks during their respective campaigns, still find themselves within touching distance of fourth-placed Tottenham.
In that context, Liverpool arguably have the greater need for victory this evening given that they are seven points behind Spurs and three behind the Gunners, who can use their 2-0 win at Anfield at the start of the season for additional self-belief. “That win gave us the idea that we have potential,” said Wenger. “From then on, the team got more confident. As much as some results can have a negative impact on the team, this one had a positive impact.
“All these teams like Liverpool and us have rebuilt the team and the last four or five months will determine how well the job has been done.
“We felt frustrated after the City and Chelsea games. It was important to respond and now to go on a positive run.
“We know that what is left in front of us is that every single game is very, very important.”