It is the interlull and idle minds have idle thoughts. At the risk of arousing the mischief-makers in the fanbase, who eagerly need a scapegoat du jour to feast on when the going gets wobbly, there is something intriguing about the future role of Aaron Ramsey when he returns from injury given the way the team has developed in his absence. To be fair I am not the first fan who has raised these concerns but I will approach it from my usual data-driven perspective.
I start from the premise that Ramsey is directly competing with Santi Cazorla for that central midfield starting position. I base this primarily on the fact that Wenger selected Ramsey to be the box-to-box midfielder in the club’s season-opener vs Liverpool at the expense of a fit Cazorla who only came on after the younger man left the field with a hamstring injury.
A superficial look at their characteristics according to Whoscored.com would suggest that Santi has the greater skill-set and is hands-down a better option, all things being equal.
|Through balls||Very Strong|
|Holding on to the ball||Strong|
|Holding on to the ball||Strong|
Merely looking at their relative characteristics, in my opinion, does not adequately answer the question as to why the manager saw Ramsey as a superior option at the beginning of the season. Unlike many Arsenal bloggers, I do not believe for one moment that Wenger makes any footballing decision based purely on sentiment. He has said often enough he is obsessed with winning football games and his record of victories is second to none when it comes to previous football mangers at Arsenal Football Club. Focussing solely on their EPL performances, I decided to parse the WhoScored data to identify any trends, starting with their respective playing time.
It’s quite evident that ever since his transfer to the club in 2012 (the importance of this was overshadowed by the noisy, acrimonious sale of Van Persie to United that same summer) Santi has played some heavy minutes for the club, in excess of 3,000 per season in 12/13 and 14/15. Add 624 and 559 respectively in the champions league campaigns, then we get a full measure of how vital it was for the manager to have the little Spaniard on the team sheet. For comparison’s sake, Aaron has never logged a similar amount of time but it is telling that when Santi’s playing time was scuttled by injuries in 15/16, the Welshman’s participation increased, suggesting there is an inverse relationship.
In the goal-scoring department Ramsey is the clear winner over the four seasons together. He hit a peak of 10 goals in 13/14 and since then has leveled off to a most recent haul of 5 goals for a season. Santi was a goal-scoring tyro in 12/13 but has become less of an option from open play emerging as the penalty and free-kick specialist in recent years. After 15 games in 15/16, before that season-ending injury, his goal tally was zero.
While Ramsey had an Indian summer in 13/14 with goals and assists, like his goal-scoring, the assists have gradually tailed off over the years. In 15/16 he was a provider on a mere four occasions. In contrast Santi has been a constant assister, his best years being 12/13 and 14/15 when he had major minutes on the field. His only off year was 15/16 when his campaign was truncated less than half way through.
This is a most telling graphic. Santi with one exception has consistently been the superior passer. While they may have been statistically the same in 12/13, Aaron’s passing percentage has been decidedly inferior over time with the gap at its widest in 15/16 at 4 percentage points. Ramsey is down to the mid 80s while the Spaniard is in the stratospheric 90s. How significant is this difference given that the current Arsenal is a technically oriented outfit that relies on possession and accurate, clever passing?
In its ultimate rating Whoscored ranked Ramsey a superior Overall player on only one occasion at 7.7. That was in 13/14, the best year in his career for goals and assists. Otherwise Santi has had the consistently superior Overall rating, from a high of 7.9 in 12/13 to a low of 7.3 in 13/14. Despite the ravages of time, Santi is now 31 years old (vs Aaron’s youthful 26), the veteran has seemingly defied age this season. After six EPL games he has 2 goals and 2 assists and a 92% passing success rate, yielding a 7.1 Overall rating. The little magician seems in no hurry to exit center stage.
Arsene Wenger certainly has better knowledge of both players than any of us. He observes them on the training ground and will have access to superior data than Whoscored. The manager recently admitted he receives enormous information from the in-house analytics firm, StatDNA, but has to whittle it down to what is most important. In this instance, while the data set is small, I wonder whether he now thinks Ramsey’s better goal-scoring and defensive contribution outweighs Cazorla’s better passing and assists. Interesting times ahead.