Arsenal need Aaron Ramsey to commit, he could be key next season
While Arsenal will understandably be frustrated by their 3-1 loss to Manchester United, there were plenty of positives to take out of their performance. One such was the display of Aaron Ramsey: the Welshman was typically tireless and created Arsenal's goal with an excellent cushioned pass for Alexandre Lacazette.
Ramsey has been a bright spot for Arsenal this season, and the Gunners must act quickly to tie him down to a long-term deal -- they can't afford to allow him to run his contract down in the same fashion as Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil.
The midfielder is a curiously divisive player among the Arsenal fans. You would imagine that a man who has two FA Cup Final winners to his name would be worshipped by supporters, but Ramsey tends to draw as much ire as admiration. Few doubt his talent, but there has been a sense that he doesn't ally his ability with the "game intelligence" evident among the world's best midfielders.
But that appears to be changing this season. Take the manner in which he created Lacazette's goal on Saturday: that showed awareness, unselfishness and a delicate touch. Many players would have panicked and attempted an awkward shot on goal; others would have hesitated in anticipation of a linesman's flag. Instead, Ramsey showed presence of mind and immaculate technique to set up his teammate.
He might not have been quite so measured a few seasons ago. Ramsey has an innate desire to impose himself on the game, and that can lead to his heart overruling his head. He has been guilty of attempting to emulate the Steven Gerrard "one man midfield" model, with mixed results. However, there appears to be a new cerebral dimension to his game.
That's borne out by the stats. Ramsey has already racked up six assists this season, more than anyone else in the Arsenal squad. Add in three Premier League goals and he's arguably the team's most productive player. When Wenger talks about the qualities he wants to see from this team, "efficiency" is a word he invariably returns to. Right now, Ramsey looks as efficient as ever.
There is a quality and control to his passing that has not always been evident. While he was one prone to Hollywood passes and unnecessary flicks, he is now willing to keep things simple. That's not to say he's become conservative, he simply reserves his risks for the final third.
None of this is to suggest that Arsenal's midfield is free of problems. The partnership between Ramsey and Granit Xhaka is not without its flaws, and Arsenal would surely see the best of Ramsey in a midfield three rather than a two. However, even in an occasionally dysfunctional system, he is managing to impress on an individual basis.
Staying fit has helped. Arsenal's failure to qualify from the Champions League has meant that Ramsey has typically only had to cope with one game per week. His hamstrings tended to buckle under the dual strain of European and domestic competition in previous seasons, whereas now he looks fresh for every Premier League fixture.
Some of this improvement can also be attributed to maturity; Ramsey will turn 27 before the end of the year and is now entering what ought to be the peak of his career.
The worry for Arsenal is that his current contract is due to expire in 18 months' time. With Sanchez and Ozil already set to walk away on free transfers this summer, Arsenal are perilously close to allowing another star to enter the final year of his deal.
Arsenal need Ramsey to commit. With Ozil and Sanchez due to depart, he stands to be one of the club's most senior players next season. Per Mertesacker has already announced his retirement, and with Laurent Koscielny's powers seemingly on the wane it's possible that Ramsey could even be considered as the next Arsenal captain.
It's often been said that Ramsey is the sort of player who needs the team to be built around him -- come next season that might well be the case.
James McNicholas is one of ESPN FC's Arsenal bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @gunnerblog.