Anatomy of the Arsenal: Two Semi’s in 1983 but we don’t go all the way

By Les Crang

If Terry Neill had brought back the good times between 1977-1980 in reaching 4 major finals (plus a league cup semi-final), the next few years were barren ones. Worst than that, they were years when Arsenal’s rivals Tottenham Hotspurs were good. Spurs back to back FA Cup Final wins of 1981 and 1982. Worse still than Tottenham winning the FA Cup twice was losing in the third round of the FA Cup to them in 1981, with The Times (license required) saying:-

The Indian sign which Arsenal had over their nearest and fiercest rivals in the late 1970s has been completely broken. Last season wins by Tottenham against Arsenal in the League Cup and League indicated that the tide had turned and Saturday’s deserved victory by the FA Cup holders at a wet White Hart Lane confirmed the fact.

So why the decline? Firstly, we had lost Liam Brady in 1980 to Juventus, while the following year we had lost Frank Stapleton in an acrimonious transfer to Manchester United in 1981. The combined fee for these important players was a mere £1,500,000. Arsenal had also lost the experience of Pat Rice, Sammy Nelson and Willie Young, whilst Stapleton’s replacement Paul Vaessen had suffered a major knee injury, which he would never recover from.

Although, we had qualified for Europe in 1981 and 1982, both had ended in ignominy. In 1981 we lost to a Belgian team of part-timers to Winterslag. In 1982, Arsenal would be humiliated by Spartak Moscow. After having been 2-0 up in Russia, Arsenal lost 3-2 and in the home leg they would lose 5-2. Spartak were a wonderful team, with perhaps one of the finest goalkeepers of the 1980’s in Rinat Dasayev, who Jonathan Wilson described as :-

The Yashin of the eighties and is probably second only to him in the pantheon of Russian goalkeeping.

Arsenal’s utter annihilation by Spartak meant that they could even substitute the great goalkeeper when only one sub was allowed. A fan Mike Marsh said of the game:-

The Russians had been absolutely terrific. In all my years of watching football, I have never seen such a powerful display of technical football, we were just not at the races. In fact it was worse than that, on that night, we joined ‘soccer anonymous’. I’ll never forget the faces of the likes of Sansom, Hollins & Talbot, white as sheets after the mauling they had just endured. I never like to see us beaten, but it was an education for all who witnessed it.

Out of Europe by September, 8-4 on aggregate. Arsenal would not be in Europe for another 8 years. If you looked at the side you could see why. Amy Lawrence in her recent book Invincible: Inside Arsenal’s Unbeaten 2003-2004 Season said that Tony Adams used to say for a great team ‘you needed seven [excellent players]’. Well, for Arsenal I could count three, maybe four. These would be the mercurial and lazy striker Tony Woodcock, the centre half David O’leary and full back Kenny Sansom. Also, there was the improving youngster in the background called Stewart Robson (may be not the most popular man at Arsenal in recent times).

As for the other players. Well, Pat Jennings was a good goalkeeper but not at his best, Graham Rix had a great World Cup in Spain but  never really reached that form on a regular basis. Paul Davis was improving and Brian Talbot was becoming like Mikel Arteta ( slow, but always trying). The others? Paul Vaessen was in his last season, carrying an injury he incurred in 1980. Lee Chapman, a replacement for Frank Stapleton was commonly regarded as one of Terry Neill’s worst signings. Sharing striking duties with him was John Hawley, perhaps his second worst signing. Other team members? A Scottish keeper George Wood, a player who could not displace Alan Rough as international goalkeeper. Chris Whyte as cover at the back was ok, but never a great defender. Peter Nicholas had come into replace Liam Brady was really a poor bruiser minus Brady’s range of passing. John Hollins and Alan Sunderland, like Talbot were getting slower with age.

Other teams though had spent, especially Manchester United. Their new manager Ron Atkinson had bought Remi Moses and Bryan Robson from West Brom. He had also brought in the elegant midfielder Arnold Muhren from Ipswich Town. More importantly though, Ron Atkinson had signed Frank Stapleton for a derisory sum of £900,000 from Arsenal. All these players would have an impact on Arsenal semi-finals against United.

Having started the season in relegation form, Arsenal did not win their first game until fifth game away to Coventry. In a season in which we would end up 10th in the league, it was often a season best forgotten. Except in the Domestic Cup competitions.

Our run to the Milk Cup had included some impressive results. The stand out result being the 3-0 defeat of an improving Howard Kendall  Everton team, in which Alan Sunderland scored a hat-trick. By the time Arsenal played the quarter-final, in which we had acquired Vladimir Petrovic from Red Star Belgrade. Tony Woodcock said of him after his debut against Swansea:-

[That] he did enough to suggest that he will give us  to suggest that he will give us the quality we have been lacking in midfield [he joined in January 1983].

In the Quarter-final, Arsenal played Sheffield Wednesday, winning 1-0, via a Petrovic cross for Woodcock to hook it in. In the Semi-final Arsenal would face either Burnley, Liverpool or Manchester United. Burnley would have been preferable (even though they had beaten Spurs in the previous round). Unfortunately, over two legs, Arsenal would face Manchester United.

A first leg game at Highbury was unfortunately a dreadful night for Arsenal, ending in a 4-2 defeat:-

Tony Woodcock said ‘The pitch was all against us. It was frozen hard – impossible to play on really.’

Arsenal were done over by quite a few things. The main one being that from the scouts watching United had failed badly in checking for any weaknesses. In the 1979 Arsenal manager Terry Neill had sent George Male to watch Manchester United prior to the Cup Final. Male noticed that if you attacked Arthur Albiston as a full back and crossed deep, Gary Bailey was prone to be caught out at the back post and looked how that went:-

In 1983 Arsenal used Wilf Dixon to check United out. In the first game Woodcock said:-

Before the United game, though, he told Kenny, ‘You don’t have to worry about Steve Coppell – he’s gone. His legs have gone, he can’t run any more.’ Coppell was possibly their best player in the first game.

On  a cold night in February, Arsenal went down 4-0 down at home, with Peter Nicholas and Tony Woodcock getting consolations. Worst still, Frank Stapleton, on his return to Highbury and being barracked continually, scored twice, flicking two fingers to the Highbury crowd on the second goal, as way of celebration.

The game also carried an aggressive undertone with The Times (license required) saying :-

United had marred their display by allowing their natural exuberance to spill over. It was soon checked by the referee who booked Bryan Robson for baulking Petrovic and added the names of Duxbury and Moses both for felling Nicholas.

Moses actions would have repercussions, but more of that later.

In the second leg Arsenal went to Old Trafford. Tony Woodcock made a relevant point in saying:-

We didn’t get the early chance, but it finally came in the second half. Chris Whyte got up for his header. He should perhaps have done better, because he was close in, but thumped it and it bounced away off the post. Five minutes later they broke away [and scored].

It got a bit nasty…Noddy Talbot was butted in the face by Moses.

Arsenal lost 2-1 (6-3 on aggregate defeat). Raphael Meade scored our last minute consolation.

Arsenal were still in the FA cup though. We had a fairly easy run, up to the Quarters, when we would meet Aston Villa at Highbury. Arsenal won 2-0 with Vladimir Petrovic getting a cracking second and having a fantastic game.

In the draw, Arsenal could face Brighton, Sheffield Wednesday or Manchester United. Unfortunately, it was United again and not relegation bound Brighton.

Prior to the game, Arsenal had a Derby at Spurs. if anything could be worst than this result then I doubt I can remember it. The score was Spurs 5 Arsenal 0. The Guardian reported on the hapless display:-

Often as not Brazil, Falco and Archibald merely had to queue up in predatory fashion to await the next mistake.

Terry Neill would be under extreme pressure to win the Semi-final which took place on the 16/04/83 at Villa Park :-

Having taken to the pitch Arsenal had a great first half taken a 1-0 lead via Tony Woodcock (although it was more a counter-attack). The Times (licence required) wrote:-

The tenacity of Stewart Robson triumphed over the combined challenge of Bailey and Albiston, Petrovic eventually cleared up the middle and Woodcock finished it at the near post.

Unfortunately, by the second half the game changed. In an era when only one substitute per team was allowed, Arsenal had to withdraw their star player Stewart Robson. His replacement? Lee Chapman. A man so one footed, he struggled to stand on the other leg. The reason for Chapman coming on? You guessed it. Remi Moses. In the second half United took over the game, scoring twice via Bryan Robson and Norman Whiteside. Arsenal had missed out on a second final.

Why? Well we were pretty poor to be honest. We often lacked… wait for it… a centre half and defensive midfielder. Sound familiar? We had a world class centre-half in David O’Leary, but his partners? Chris Whyte and Stewart Robson? Whyte was ok, but never Arsenal class, whilst Robson was more a midfielder who could cover in defence (a Nacho Monreal in modern parlance then?) Arsenal would go out and buy Tommy Caton in December 1983, the cover was poor.

Our Defensive midfielder?  Peter Nicholas. I have never been a Nicholas fan. Nicholas was supposed to be our midfield general. But in comparison to Peter Reid at Everton? Graeme Souness at Liverpool? Or Remi Moses at Manchester United. Nicholas was none of these.

In attack we had Lee Chapman as our other option to cover Alan Sunderland or Tony Woodcock. Lee Chapman was a god awful player. He cost us £600,000 from Stoke. A better option would have been Cyrille Regis perhaps from West Bromwich Albion. Tall target man, with International pedigree, good control and great work ethic. All things Chapman did not have. He would have been in the £1,000,000 plus mark, but certainly worth it in the long run. Again, Arsenal trying to get a bargain rather than pay a little bit extra.

The two semi-final defeats underlined a poor team. All season, Arsenal seemed to get worse. After one game against Nottingham Forest a 0-0 draw, The Times (licence required) wrote:-

The final whistle came as a merciful release in a match which numbed the senses. It was difficult to believe that two first division teams were on view at Highbury on Saturday. The most elementary skills were missing and the lack of effort must have disturbed the respective managers. At least Arsenal’s Terry Neill had the courtesy to apologize for his side’s part in a pathetic 90 minutes.

How True. Terry Neill was under pressure now. Heavy pressure. Prior to the FA Cup semi-final, rumours had circulated that Terry Venables had been approached for the Arsenal job.

So was their anything to come out of the season to make you smile? Well, in a league fixture against Manchester United prior to the Cup final, Arsenal won 3-0. But the best part? And for this, I will be kind to Peter Nicholas, the following happened:-

Just to illustrate the growing dislike  between the two sides, Peter Nicholas made a desperate bid for cult hero status. With Remi Moses about five yards away from him, Nicholas hurled himself to the ground, clutching his face, as a posse of Arsenal players pointed accusingly at Moses. The stunned Manc was sent off, which meant he would miss the FA Cup Final.

At least we could smile at that (Moses had this coming all season to be frank). The rest of the season was best forgotten along with the dreadful green away kit that brought us a mere two wins when we wore it. Could things get worse under Terry Neill? Oh yes. They certainly could.

Swansea-League Cup

Naveen’s tactics column: sittin’ Swansea and a lesson in the footballnomics of specialization

By Naveen Maliakkal

Under Gary Monk, Swansea have undergone quite an identity change. Compared to the sides managed by Roberto Martinez, Brendan Rodgers, and Michael Laudrup, Monk’s Swansea have much more of a preference for operating as a deep-defending side and hitting teams on the counter. Last season, Swansea spent 25% of their matches in their opposition half, while spending 28% of the game in their own half. This season, Swansea have only spent 18% of their matches in their opponent’s half, while spending 33% of the match in their own half.

After a period of residing close around the top of the English Premier League in terms of possession and pass completion, they sit 10th in possession (50.1%) and 7th in pass completion (84.0%). Last season, Swansea averaged 17.7 tackles per game, 16.9 interceptions per game, and 9.9 fouls per game, for a rate of about 3.5 T+I/foul per game. This season, Swansea have averaged 16.7 tackles per game, 16.2 interceptions per game, and 12.1 fouls per game, for a rate of 2.7 T+I/foul per game.

This increased emphasis on frustrating opponents rather than controlling matches with possession has also shown up in the shot numbers. Last season, Swansea averaged about 13.0 shots per game, while conceding 12.7 shots per game. This season, Swansea attempt 9.3 shots per game, while conceding 15 shots per game. That represents an amazing shift, and they may have had some luck in conversion to earn their 15 points from 10 games.

Swansea have only taken 2% of their shots from inside the 6 yard box (18th in the EPL). They have taken 48% of their shots inside the 18 yard box (6th), and 49% of their shots come from outside of the box (6th). Defensively, 7% of the shots they have conceded have come from inside the 6 yard box (13th), though only 45% of their shots conceded come from inside the 18 yard box (5th fewest) and 48% from outside the box (5th most…which is a good thing). Based on this evidence, it seems that Swansea will not sustain a 1.5 points per game rate.

However, against Arsenal, their approach could cause Arsenal plenty of problems. Lining up in a kind of 4-2-3-1 formation, defensively, they will probably look like a 4-4-1-1/4-4-2 or maybe a 4-5-1. Whether Swansea employ the former structure or the latter will come down to Gylfi Sigurdsson’s role in defense. If Swansea adopt a less proactive, more patient defensive approach, Sigurdsson will form a midfield trio with Tom Carroll and Ki Sung-Yeung behind him, with Swansea looking to press once the ball makes it into Arsenal’s midfielders. If Swansea have a greater desire to press Arsenal’s center backs, Sigurdsson will join Wilfred Bony in the defensive front, looking to close down Arsenal’s back line.

In midfield, Swansea will look to defend the space in front of the back four with two midfielders, Ki Sung-Yeung and Tom Carroll. Having these two in the middle will limit the amount of space that players like Alexis Sanchez have to dribble into, in the center of the pitch. If Arsenal wish to find some success in penetrating Swansea’s midfield line, they should probably look to attack the space between the wide players and the two central midfielders (attack the half-spaces).  Against this type of side, a player with the off-ball intelligence of Mesut Ozil (as long as you give him the freedom to express that intelligence by not creating a tragedy of the midfield commons) would likely serve as the decisive factor in the match, with respect to Arsenal consistently finding ways to break down the opposition.

Once Swansea win the ball, either Carroll or Ki will look to move the ball wide to either Nathan Dyer, Wayne Routledge, or Jefferson Montero, depending on which two play. Using their speed and dribbling, these wide men will look to advance the ball into the space Arsenal’s fullbacks will likely leave behind, as they go forward to provide width and crosses.

They may also look to play the ball into Wilfried Bony, who operates in a role similar to the one Olivier Giroud has performed for Arsenal. He can serve as a target man, either inside the box or outside the box, but his more likely role will involve him playing the role of a central hub. Particularly when Swansea build their attacks from the back, Bony will drop into the space in front of the opponent’s back line to receive the ball. From there, he will look to play in Swansea’s wide attackers or play a through ball for the runs of Sigurdsson or Ki, those from deeper central midfield areas.

Everyone Defends, Everyone Attacks: The Case for Dynamic Specialization Rather than Specialists

Specialization has plenty of virtues, especially outside of the football pitch.  As David Ricardo pointed out, specialization allows for individuals to exploit their comparative advantages, in addition to providing the answer to the question, “Who should specialize?” Adam Smith, in The Wealth of Nations, described how the division of labor increases productivity. Not only does it allow individuals to focus on a particular task, but that focus allows them to engage in more trial-error-feedback loops with that particular task. This increases their ability to find ways to do the task better, in addition to incentivizing the discovery of new ways to complete a task.

However, as Adam Smith pointed out, there exists a limit on specialization in a particular place, at a particular time. Essentially, beneficial specialization is limited by the extent to which individuals can economically interact.

Therefore, in football, it seems that creating a team of specialists, with a sub-team of attackers and a sub-team of defenders, serves to shoot a team in the foot at the very start of a match. If I have five players who focus on defending and five players who focus on attacking¹, then I only have a maximum of five players interacting with one another in possession and another five interacting when the team does not have possession. Not only does this limit the amount of resources I have allocated to a particular phase of play at a particular moment in time, it makes my team more predictable², and it also limits the ability for my players to divide the defensive/attacking roles among them; the team’s ability to beneficially specialize decreases.

Also, in football, there exists a major obstacle for the eleven players on the pitch to interact—the opposition. Unlike the production of a good/service, the individuals involved in producing a desired footballing outcome for the team have a second party that antagonizes them, in an effort to prevent them from doing what they want to do. Therefore, if one fields a team of specialists, then the opponent will look to isolate these specialists from one another. If these players cannot interact, then how much good does their specialized skill set do for the team?

For example, if I field a team with five specialist defenders and five specialist attackers, then I have made it easier for the opponent to prevent the ball from moving from the five defenders to the five attackers. It is too easy to disrupt the flow on the most valuable resource—the ball.

First, these five specialist defenders are incapable of moving themselves and the ball with quickness of mind and action. Therefore, they lack the ability to consistently and quickly move the ball from the back of the team to the front. Also, since the opponent knows about the ineptitude of the five defenders in possession³, they can either ignore the five specialist defenders and defend the five specialist attackers, essentially giving them five spare men with which to defend, or they can look to put those specialist defenders under pressure, force turnovers high up the pitch, and create goal-scoring opportunities at will. This seems like a hyperbole, but watch Liverpool with Skrtel and Sakho (and even Glen Johnson when they go to that strange back three). Some smart teams will literally ignore those players in possession and focus on eliminating the forward passing lanes with the spare men they have. This is why possession-based sides need to have all their players who know how to play with the ball at their feet. That way they can increase the amount of uncertainty they impose on their opponent, preventing their opponent from concentrating their defensive resources in certain areas, allowing them to outnumber and stifle the attack. So, even though the attackers have specialized in their roles, the inability for the ball to move to the attackers prevents the team from enjoying the benefits of such specialization.

I have also made the dynamic resource allocation problem easier for my opposition in attack. If I have specialist attackers who not do play much, or any role, in defense, then the opponent has greater certainty about the costs and benefits of particular actions; they can successfully base their possession in a particular area of the pitch; they have a greater ability to outnumber the opponent in an area of the pitch, at a particular moment in time. Watch Germany eviscerate the Netherlands in Euro 2012, behind an excellent performance from Mesut Ozil, for an example of how a team with four specialists in attack and a back six can easily be torn apart, even though they have six player devoted to defending4.

Given my problem with specialists, it should not come as a surprise that I do not want to see a limited defensive specialist play in midfield for Arsenal. By having a player with such a limited skill set and a fixed role, Arsenal reduce the degree to which the members of the XI can interact in possession. They essentially play a man down in possession (granted, they already do that when Flamini is on the pitch, but I do not think they want to make a habit of it), making it easier for the opposition to defend them. They reduce the possibilities in possession, their ability to move the ball quickly, and their ability to maintain control over a match in possession.

Also, a specialist defensive midfielder has little value for Arsenal if such a player gives the players ahead of him the feeling that they do not have to work hard or intelligently in defense. In a kind of Peltzman Effect on the football pitch, the lower perceived cost of laziness or stupidity could incentivize the players in front of this defensive specialist to shirk their defensive responsibilities. What happens is that there exists a lack of negative feedback as the super defender cleans up the mess the advanced player created, but that player does not realize that the near catastrophe was his fault. Thus, decreasing the number of players who interact with one another when Arsenal do not have the ball. In this case, the defensive specialist adds less defensive value to the team than one would expect, given his quality.

To be clear, I am not against specialization on the football pitch. Specialization is a necessary component of any team; however, fixed specialization creates some pretty obvious flaws, even if they may not be exploited except against the best competition. A team should defend as an XI and attack as an XI. In this way, a team has the maximum number of players interacting with each other at all times, allowing for them to specialize with greater benefit. Depending on the location of the ball, the game situation, the positioning of the players, etc. everyone has a role they should play, regardless of whether the team has the ball or does not have the ball. Therefore, the ideal role that a player plays in a match changes, throughout a match and between matches. Specialization must be dynamic.

This has some consequences on how Arsenal probably need to grow as a club. For example, instead of purchasing a specialist defensive midfielder, Arsenal first need to defend as a unit, holding all players accountable when they do not have possession. This means that all players have a role to stop counter-attacks, to defend prime real estate on the pitch, etc. This means shield the back of the defense, not with one or two players, but with the rest of the team; “activating” the back line defenders should serve as a last resort.

And Arsenal seen to be moving in the direction of greater interaction among the entire XI, in attack and defense. They signed Alexis Sanchez and Danny Welbeck, two front players who offer work rate and intelligence in defense. They have signed a player like Calum Chambers, who I believe will take over for Per Metresacker at right center back, giving them a player who can defend in a higher line and do more in possession, allowing for greater interaction among Arsenal players defensively and offensively.

In some ways, it is not surprising that Arsenal’s best two-way players and most intelligent players tend to come from outside of the youth set-up. Danny Welbeck had his upbringing at Manchester United, Alexis Sanchez really grew as a player at Barcelona, and Calum Chambers learned his craft at Southampton. What will be interesting to see over this season and over the next few years is how the Arsenal-trained players develop and how the youth system changes to meet Arsenal’s new needs, if Arsenal want to move towards a more Dutch style of football. A dynamic specialization style of football.


¹ I am ignoring goalkeepers but having a goalkeeper who can play with the ball at his feet, cover tons of ground defensively, understands how to position himself in possession, etc. is highly valuable as it increases the amount of interaction of the players of a team in both attack and defense. For me, the skill of shot-stopping is overrated, and there may not even exists much of a marginal difference from keeper to keeper.
²If I know the five players that will defend/attack then I can have greater certainty as to the strengths of the players in defense/attack, their weaknesses, how the opponent will allocate their resources, etc. That greater certainty allows me to more easily create a game plan to beat them.
³Better scouting may have contributed to the movement towards greater universality. If I have too many fixed roles in my team back in the 1960s, I have a greater chance of getting away with it because my opponent has less knowledge about my team. Nowadays, teams know each other more and therefore have a better ability to exploit teams that have more fixed roles in their XI.
4England really lacks teams that work as an XI either in attack or in defense, let alone both. That may be one of the reasons that English clubs have recently struggled so mightily in the Champions League, except when they try to defend deep, counter, and hope that they do not concede too many shots and/or the first goal.
5I have probably linked this interview with Jonker too many times, but I think his role at the club will play a large role in Arsenal’s ability to reach the top of European football and see my rather long comment on the Sunderland preview for more on Arsenal becoming more Dutch.


Ramsey needs to ditch Hollywood and get back to N5

Before the match against Anderlecht, Arsene Wenger publicly praised Aaron Ramsey. The boss said that the Arsenal midfielder had gone a bit “Hollywood” in the first part of the season, looking for goals instead of doing the work needed in midfield, but that he was ready to get back to basics. Unfortunately, that pre-match message went unheeded by the Arsenal midfielder as Anderlecht dropped three goals on an Arsenal side which naively attacked for the last 30 minutes when they probably should have sat back and defended. And that attack was often led by Aaron Ramsey.

Arseblog’s screengrab in this morning’s post clearly illustrates the massive problem created when a team is 3-2 up and one of Arsenal’s two more-defensive midfielders goes forward in search of a fourth goal.

That cluster of players forward isn’t directly responsible for the goal but is rather indicative of how much space Arsenal conceded in the midfield in the final 30 minutes of that game. It also shows a lack of discipline in that when you have a 3-2 lead you shouldn’t see five players forward.

That lack of discipline was evident again a few seconds after this screen grab when Ramsey lined up a free kick and blasted it over the bar. It may not tickle the fancy of the footballing purists out there but few would have complained if Ramsey had passed the ball to Alexis who then dribbled over to the corner flag. Doing that may be cynical and it wouldn’t guarantee that Arsenal would have won the match, but it is the correct tactic in the 90th minute and would have certainly increased Arsenal’s chances of winning the game.

Arsene Wenger clearly had a word with Ramsey before the match to remind him of his duties as a midfielder given the fact that he revealed the following in his pre-match presser:

If you play like [you believe that you] have to score, every time you want to be in the box you forget a little bit of the basics of the job, but [Ramsey] is back now. He had a little moment when he was not at his best but that can happen. I am fully confident that he is back.

It’s no surprise then that after the match Wenger was fuming:

…we had a poor defensive performance from the first to the last minute today. …it was a combination of switching off and fatigue as well. You could see we couldn’t win the challenges and they finished stronger and sharper – we got punished. I think when we lost Mikel Arteta we lost out because he was one of the few who defended well.

That bit about Arteta being the only one who defended well along with his pre-match comments about Ramsey returning to basics look like Wenger taking a swipe at Ramsey. Wenger rarely criticizes performances, and even more rarely criticizes players, and given the two dubious goals that the referee gave, Wenger could have deflected criticism away from his team by focusing on the referee. But the fact that he didn’t and that he instead focused his ire on the players’ performances both before and after the match (specifically on Ramsey, Arteta’s midfield partner) indicates that Wenger could be frustrated with the young Welshman.

Wenger’s frustration is probably not borne out of anything other than love and respect for Ramsey. Wenger banked on Ramsey being the new Cesc. So much so that Wenger cited Ramsey as one of the reasons why he didn’t take Cesc back this summer. But Ramsey has dropped from Arsenal’s star midfielder last season to a lesser star midfielder this season and if you compare Ramsey’s stats from last season to this one on a “Per90″ basis you see the difference fairly quickly. So, it’s understandable that Arsene is a bit frustrated with his star pupil.

Here are the highlights for those who don’t want to click through:

  • Ramsey was second on the team last season in tackles per game with 3.3 (successful) per game
  • This season he is only completing 2.1 tackles per game.
  • His missed tackles per game has stayed almost exactly the same as last season and that means his total tackles attempted is down from 6.44 per game to 5.12
  • His other defensive numbers are basically the same: his interceptions are still one per game, which isn’t good for a defensive midfielder, but he’s never been a defensive midfielder
  • His clearances per game are up a little, to just over 1 per game — again, he’s not a defensive midfielder
  • He has never been one to get in the way and block a shot and has zero blocked shots this season (he had 3 all of last season)
  • But he does have two defensive errors already compared to the one from last season
  • Passing stats are almost all exactly the same, except his Key Passes numbers have more than doubled from 1.23 last season to 2.81 this season. This is because he is going forward more than ever before and with Welbeck and Alexis willing shooters in front of him, he is getting them shots.
  • Despite the increase in Key Passes, Ramsey is not creating as many assist. He has just 1 assist in 9 matches this season compared to 8 in 23 last season.
  • This key pass/assists drop off is part of Ramsey’s new-found general inefficiency in attack.
    • His shooting accuracy is down from 71% last season to 43% this season
    • His shots per game numbers are up from 2.56 per90 to 3.30 per90
    • The reason he is missing more and scoring less despite shooting more is that he is shooting more from distance (outside the box) rather than taking shots in good areas like he did last season. His shots from distance per90 has doubled from 1.18 to 2.31.
    • And worryingly for a box to box midfielder his ability to dribble past an opponent has also dried up dropping from an already mediocre 42% success rate to an asinine 21%.

You simply cannot have your central midfielder giving up the ball on 80% of his dribbles. That would be a terrible percentage for a forward who scores you a ton of goals. For example, the worst I’ve seen was Luis Suarez two seasons ago and he was a 41% dribbler and this season Alexis Sanchez often tries too hard and only completes 53% of his dribbles. But dribbles aside, looking at shots from distance, tackles, blocks, and everything else, clearly, all of Ramsey’s stats are down. 

But more worrying isn’t the bulk of his play, which (despite the drop off) actually compares favorably with Cesc Fabregas. The really concerning part is that in a game where Arsenal are 3-0 up, and after having had a taking to by the manager before the match, and having Flamini on the pitch, Aaron Ramsey was trying to get Arsenal a fourth goal. He was still trying to get Arsenal a 4th goal in the 93rd minute when Anderlecht scored.

Arsene Wenger came in for a lot of criticism after the match for his rather bumbling substitution of Podolski for Welbeck. It was an indefensible switch from a defensive standpoint because everyone knows that when it comes to doing the work of playing defense the last person you throw on from that Arsenal bench is Lukas Podolski. Podolski being the guy who couldn’t even be bothered to bring his shin pads to the Dortmund match. But Ramsey also has to shoulder some of the blame here.

Thankfully, I’m convinced that Ramsey, more than anyone on this team bar Alexis, has the shoulders to carry that burden. He will have been stung by the criticism after the match and I would put money on a solid performance this weekend. Aaron must ditch the palm trees and swimsuits of Hollywood and embrace the brownstones and wellies of North London.