For a while on Sunday, it just looked like another one of those days for Arsenal. After 2 weeks of supporters driving themselves crazy waiting for proper football to return again, it would have been typical of this season’s struggle for the Gunners to then drop points against a team fighting in vain on the wrong side of the relegation struggle. Luckily, the players were able to rediscover their better form in the second half, eventually beating lowly Stoke City 3-0, but the result was far from as comfortable as most fans would have liked, and the players were nowhere near their best.
In the opening 75 minutes, as Arsenal struggled to find their rhythm on the ball, few players managed to distinguish themselves much at all. Mesut Ozil did not see nearly enough of the ball in dangerous areas as the Potters’ compact defence denied the Arsenal attack space with which to work. Mohammed Elneny was probably the closest to his typical self in the first half, as his passing seemed marginally less wayward than his teammates, but he was far from perfect, and he had cheap giveaways in the Arsenal end. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang did not receive much service at all in the first half, though he would recover nicely before the end of the match. Jack Wilshere was unusually wayward with his layoffs and passes as well, despite showing real intent with his runs. In fact, the only player to do anything of note during the opening 45 minutes was Shkodran Mustafi, who made a couple nice 1 on 1 tackles that saved goalkeeper David Ospina from having much to do.
Things got moving along much better in the second half, with Arsenal finally starting to find their passing game that had gone missing for much of the opening period. Ozil started getting into more dangerous areas while the midfield began to function better as a unit. The first big change of the match came once Danny Welbeck went off for Alexandre Lacazette, who shifted over into the central striker role, moving Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang out wider to accommodate the change. It was during this period that the match’s best and most consistent player really got going: Aaron Ramsey.
The 27 year old Welshman has returned to his best form this season, one in which he has been able to remain mostly healthy, and has often looked like the most dangerous Gunner in big matches. He completed 83% of his passes on Sunday, including 2 key passes, to go along with his 2 tackles and 3 shots, but it wasn’t the statistics that made Ramsey the pick for Man of the Match, but rather the eye test. Even when the Arsenal attack was uncharacteristically wayward in the first half, Ramsey’s energy shined through. For a player that has spent so much time nursing muscular injuries, his athletic stamina is astonishing; he quite simply never stops running. What few chances Arsenal had near the Stoke goal in the first half, Ramsey was usually involved, and he was almost able to finish the best chance the Gunners had in the first half, but his shot harmlessly grazed the top of the goal on the way past.
The second half saw Ramsey get more touches in the Stoke end as Arsenal pushed on in search of a goal to break the deadlock. He even had a chance to round the keeper to get a goal of his own, but Jack Butland made a great save to keep him off the score sheet. Ramsey continued to perform as the shuttling midfielder in the second half, playing in line with Mohammed Elneny at the base of the midfield off the ball and during buildup, but with more license to go forward than his Egyptian teammate once Arsenal transitioned to attack. He continued to offer a consistent outlet to recycle possession in their own end, but as always, showed an incredible knack for arriving in dangerous areas at the right time, even if he was unable to convert his chances.
For those that remember the version of Aaron Ramsey from a couple seasons ago that was unceremoniously stuck out on the wing to accommodate others in central areas, his maturity as one of a double pivot in Arsenal’s preferred 4-2-3-1 has been a revelation this season. Long criticised for not paying enough attention to his defensive duties in favour of offering an attacking threat, Ramsey has become a lot more selective in his marauding forward runs. Rewatching his performance on Sunday, one sees a midfielder almost always in the right position when he needs to be, even dropping into the back line at one point to get in the way of a Stoke opportunity in the second half, much like Granit Xhaka has done more of himself in recent weeks. It used to be that Ramsey had to justify his selection by making a difference in the final third, but he has arguably become the best box to box midfielder in England this season because of his improvement in all areas.
Considering 2 of Arsenal’s 3 goals were scored from the penalty spot, there was not a tremendous amount of positive play from which to pick a Man of the Match. Aubameyang got the only goal from open play, and nearly assisted Hector Bellerin with a nice flick that the Spaniard blazed over the goal, but he was more of a beneficiary of circumstance than the outstanding performer. When a team shows up to play and haven’t brought their best, it is up to the best players in the side to keep propelling the team forward until the attack starts to click. Despite not being involved in any of the 3 Arsenal goals, no player was as energetic and consistent as Aaron Ramsey, and for that he is your Man of the Match