As Wales prepare to face Belgium in their first ever European Championships quarter-final, the pre-match narrative understandably centres once again on their world class talisman, Gareth Bale.
The consensus among countries at the Euros remains that if you stop Bale, you stop Wales. Despite pre-tournament denials from Bale and Chris Coleman that they are a one-man team, there is no doubt they rely on the Real Madrid player’s match-winning capabilities.
However, performing with quiet consistency in the heart of the Welsh midfield has been Aaron Ramsey, who; complete with his bleach-blonde haircut, has shone at Euro 2016. The midfielder is enjoying a stellar finals, with one goal and two assists to his name already. Ramsey’s showings against Slovakia, England and Russia earned him a spot on The Guardian’s group stage team of the tournament, and against Northern Ireland in the round of 16 he continued his impressive form.
Ramsey’s performances have been of a standard that Arsenal fans have seldom seen him reach at the Emirates in 2015-16. Often at Arsenal, Ramsey finds himself deployed out wide to accommodate Mesut Özil, a more natural number 10. The Gunners’ lack of traditional wingers means he assumes the unfamiliar role of unorthodox wide-man where he proves largely ineffective, even if his does do an admirable job for the team.
The return of Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla, combined with the more defensive-minded trio of Francis Coquelin, Mohamed Elneny and now Granit Xhaka, means that Ramsey has become the odd midfielder out in Arsenal’s system.
When Ramsey does feature in a more central berth, Arsène Wenger’s preference to play with two deep midfield anchors means the Welshman assumes defensive burdens he is unaccustomed to playing with. In this role, his attacking instincts draw him further up the pitch, leading him to renegade on his defensive responsibilities, in turn putting his side at risk.
Commonly, his partner is a creative play-making pivot such as Santi Cazorla. The Spaniard is capable of both disciplined positioning and dictating the pace of the game through simple, quick, incisive passes where he briskly moves the ball onwards to another Arsenal shirt. Ramsey, however, dallies in possession, and Arsenal fans often voice their frustration over the Welshman’s impatience in forcing the killer ball which rarely hit their intended recipient.
In both the wide and deeper roles, the strengths in Ramsey’s game are underemployed. He enjoyed his best season for Arsenal in 2013-14, with 16 goals in 34 appearances playing as a traditional centre midfield player. With freedom from his defensive shackles and without being relied on to create in possession, he thrived.
Ramsey was given the licence to make off-the-ball runs and with his remarkable stamina, he developed into a box-to-box midfielder, latching on to passes from deep and finishing off chances. His runs became central to Arsenal’s game and despite touching the ball less, he began to impact the game more. Rather cruelly, just as he was growing in confidence, Ramsey suffered a series of injuries and on his return, he struggled to break into the side to pick up on the role he vacated.
However, in the Euros so far, Ramsey has showcased how he can still influence a game when given the opportunity. For Wales, Coleman deploys Ramsey as part of a central midfield trio alongside the metronomic passer Joe Allen and the combative Joe Ledley. Ledley and Allen hold their positions and distribute possession, giving Ramsey freedom and a chance to utilise his considerable engine with off-the-ball runs. In this role, Ramsey has flourished.
His manager, Coleman, should receive credit for forging a system which suits Ramsey. On the attributes of his midfielder; Coleman said:
“He can score a great goal and he’s box to box, his all-round game has been great.
“You don’t want to restrict him too much, you’ve got to let him express himself and enjoy himself”.
Though it has been the attacking side to his game which has taken most of the plaudits, Ramsey has been effective defensively also, intercepting passes and dispossessing opposition midfielders. Coleman appears to have struck the perfect balance between allowing Ramsey license to express himself and ensuring he maintains discipline.
The Welsh manager cites Ramsey’s maturity as to why he has managed the balance so well, claiming:
“He’s always believed in himself, he’s always had that confidence. But the older he gets, the more he realises what his role is.
“Now you are seeing a positionally more aware Aaron Ramsey in international football against top teams — if he’s out of position, he knows the consequences are great.
“Positionally, he’s better, he’s a lot more disciplined with us. But when you have a player with that type of energy, you don’t want to restrict him too much, you’ve got to let him express himself and enjoy himself.
“But now he knows his responsibilities, he can be a bit more stubborn. That’s improved in his game.”
Against Belgium, Wales will hope Ramsey will continue to be at his dynamic best. Though France’s neighbours thrashed a limited Hungary side 4-0 in their round of 16 match, their opening group stage match defeat to Italy caused concern. Manager Marc Wilmots has struggled to find the correct formula with his team selection and for a team awash with talent, Belgium have looked less than the sum of their parts in some matches so far.
In contrast, Coleman has developed a 5-3-2/3-5-2 formation with wing-backs which has brought the best from his squad, made up of mainly mid-level Premier League and Championship footballers. Ramsey seems to be one of the main beneficiaries of Coleman’s system that is tailored for overlapping width and Bale’s powerful counter-attacks. It is representative of his influence that following captain Ashley Williams’ arm injury making him a doubt for the Belgium match, Ramsey has been tipped to receive the armband.
“He’s going to do something spectacular, he’s going to use his imagination, he’s going to stand out,” Coleman predicts.
Though Ramsey is experienced, having played a lot of football as a teenager, he is still just 25 years of age. If Wenger can’t find a way to bring the best out of him at Arsenal, his level of performances at the Euros have demonstrated he is equipped to become a star elsewhere if necessary.
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