24th February 2016: Thoughts on Barcelona loss and Ramsey’s role

Welcome back. So as expected, we lost to Barcelona last night. What was more of a surprise and makes the defeat annoying, is that for all of the visitors’ attacking brilliance, the result owed as much to us making mistakes as it did to the quality of messrs Messi, Neymar and Suarez.

It was pretty obvious beforehand that our best game-plan would be to contain and counter and for 70 minutes or so, we did that pretty faultlessly. The contain part anyway. I’d spoken about the fact that all four of our goals against Barca the two previous times we’ve played them at Emirates stadium had arrived around, or after, the 70 minute mark, with the inference being we were the better conditioned of the two teams to last the pace for the full ninety.

Yet instead of winning the game in the last 20 minutes, we contrived to gift-wrap two goals for the best team in club football. Their first arrived when we were on the attack. Hector Bellerin’s cross was headed clear by Gerard Pique and Andres Iniesta stretched out a leg to toe it on the volley to Neymar. He played a one-two with Suarez, who had drifted to the left byline, and when he received the return pass, the Brazilian found himself in acres in the middle and hurtling towards our goal.

Bellerin was the only one of our players to give chase with any hope of catching him, Nacho Monreal was drawn across from left-back, which left Messi all alone on the right. Neymar squared it and Messi took two touches in finishing like the best footballer on the planet that he is. It was a typically efficient and brilliant counter-attack by the Catalans but one we could have done a lot more to halt.

Mertesacker could have resisted pushing up so high and wide knowing that he’s as slow as he is, Monreal could have left Bellerin to contain Neymar and stuck with marking Messi, and Francis Coquelin and Aaron Ramsey could have tracked Neymar’s run when he played it left to Suarez. There was no one player at fault really, rather it was collectively poor decision-making and defending. We lost our defensive shape in the search for a goal ourselves and as Arsene said after the game, it was reminiscent of Monaco last year.

I think Coquelin’s inertia explains why he was then removed and replaced by Mathieu Flamini, which I felt was understandable at the time given the former’s not long been back from long-term injury and is yet to find full match-fitness. Unfortunately, his replacement’s first act was to swipe sluggishly at the ball in our own penalty area only to kick Messi, who had got there first, and concede a penalty. Forget game, that was tie all but over right there. Flamini was obviously at fault but Mertesacker’s decision to cushion the ball down rather than just smash it clear up-field was the root cause.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain should have buried a first-half sitter but miscued his connection. Apart from that though, I didn’t think we looked close to breaching their defence. Alexis Sanchez was quiet and clearly still struggling to regain his best form since returning from injury but the main reason for us lacking fluency and quality as an attacking unit as far as I’m concerned, is Ramsey playing in central midfield.

I’m sure his stats show he completed the most passes and ran the furthest and ‘was everywhere’ but that’s not really what we need. We need a Santi Cazorla – a player who’s comfortable in possession, spatially aware, intelligent with his passes (not just accurate), skillful enough to beat a man, drop a shoulder, play it short and sharp, or long and precise, into a team-mates stride, rather than behind it, confident enough to put his foot on the ball, slow the game up or accelerate it’s tempo – basically all the things Ramsey is infuriatingly inept at.

In our current style of play, with the way our team is structured, he’s only playing there because we have no realistic alternative, at least until Jack Wilshere returns or Mohamed Elneny’s deemed physically robust enough. I do like Ramsey, but we’re asking him to play a role he’s simply not equipped to.

If I’m honest, when he’s not regularly getting goals, and he isn’t, ‘energy’ is all he contributes playing from there. Similar to Theo Walcott and the striker’s position, I think Aaron should play wide-right or not at all once we have alternatives. For now though, we’re forced to persist with him there but I’ll be blunt, I’m hating every second of Ramsey in central midfield.

This has turned into a Ramsey Rant but it’s been building for a long while. Either we change our footballing philosophy, or we find a player who can defend like Coquelin and pass like Cazorla to partner the Welshman. Otherwise, on the right, at least against the best teams, is where Ramsey should be restricted to playing from.

Then in the summer, we need to reassess the personnel we have and how suitable they are to the style we want to play because at the moment we’ve got some who could play for our opponents last night, and others who’d be a better fit in say, Chelsea circa 2003-present. That’s to say, good players, but pass and move’s not their strong suit.

Back tomorrow.

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