Aaron Ramsey injury allows Arsene Wenger to reconfigure Arsenal
An injury to a fist-team player is never good news. Arsenal were disappointed to drop two points at Southampton on Sunday, and the loss of Aaron Ramsey to a hamstring problem merely compounded their misery. However, while the Wales international will undoubtedly be missed, manager Arsene Wenger must seize upon the opportunity to reshuffle his first team. Arsenal face another away trip midweek, and the current set-up simply isn't working on the road.
Only the Manchester clubs have a better home record than Arsenal this season. They have been far less reliable on their travels, however. They have won only two of their eight away fixtures in the Premier League, scoring just nine times. To put that in context, that's the same amount of goals as Burnley and Stoke -- it's easy to see how Arsenal have lost their tag as the great entertainers. It's a tally that looks even more troubling when you consider that five of those goals came in one game against a hapless Everton. Failing to beat the poorest Southampton side in several seasons is yet further evidence of their ongoing problems.
Ramsey is hardly the greatest offender among the Arsenal squad. In fact, he's been one of their better players this season. Three goals and six assists is a very decent contribution from a player who theoretically starts as one of two deeper lying midfielders.
Key to his improvement has been the ability to remain fit. Without the added burden of Champions League football, the central midfielder has only had to play one game per week. That appeared to be keeping him healthy, until he pulled up at St. Mary's clutching at his thigh. Arsenal have yet to put a timescale on Ramsey's return, but anyone with even the loosest familiarity with his history of hamstring problems will not be expecting him back in a hurry.
It's a serious blow to Arsenal, especially at such a frenetic point of the season -- an absence of three weeks could see Ramsey missing six Premier League games. However, necessity has proved the mother of invention for Wenger many times in the past, and he must try to use this as a chance to re-balance his dysfunctional midfield.
While Ramsey has shone individually, his partnership with Granit Xhaka has neither sufficiently protected the defence, nor been adept enough in possession to allow Arsenal to dominate games. In recent weeks, Wenger has experimented with using a back four and returning to something like the 4-2-3-1 system that was his customary formation until last spring. With Ramsey out -- and, crucially, centre-half Shkodran Mustafi also absent -- now be could be the time to revert permanently to that shape.
Instead of replacing Mustafi with the ailing Per Mertesacker, Arsenal could simply move to a back four. Nacho Monreal could play inside alongside Laurent Koscielny, with Hector Bellerin and Sead Kolasinac operating as full-backs. That would allow them to field three central midfielders, with Mesut Ozil operating as a No. 10 ahead of, say, Xhaka and Jack Wilshere. Alternatively, he could leave Xhaka out entirely, bringing in one of Mohamed Elneny or Francis Coquelin to act as Wilshere's bouncer.
In his recent run-outs, Wilshere has at least looked prepared to probe the opposition defence with dynamic dribbling and incisive passing. The Arsenal fans have been calling for his introduction to the Premier League side for some time. With Ramsey out, they're entitled to ask: if not now, when?
It has to be worth a try. Against Southampton, Arsenal were neither solid nor spectacular. Fresh from a shock victory over Chelsea, West Ham will be eager for another feather for their cap. If the Gunners simply stick with the same failing formula, they will be ripe for the taking. They can not afford to sleepwalk into another poor result on the road.
James McNicholas is one of ESPN FC's Arsenal bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @gunnerblog.