Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey have a lot more in common with each other than just the club they play for. They have the same salaries, and they’re roughly the same age (Wilshere is 21, Ramsey is 22), size, and position. In fact, on their Wikipedia pages, both are described as versatile players who function mostly as “box to box” midfielders. Both players have even had well-documented problems with injuries, and neither player is known as a prolific goal scorer. But do the similarities stop when physical attributes end and talent begins?
There’s no doubt that Aaron Ramsey is a talented player, but there have been a lot more articles written about Jack Wilshere being the future of Arsenal than there have been about Aaron Ramsey. Even in the Twitter world, toward the end of the 2012-13 season when Arsenal and Tottenham were vying for the last Champions League spot, comparisons between Gareth Bale and Jack Wilshere ensued when a Tottenham fan stated that Arsenal would be in “10th place” without Jack Wilshere. An Arsenal supporter replied that Tottenham wouldn’t even be in the top ten without Gareth Bale, and the debate was started. At no time during the debate, however, was there any mention of Aaron Ramsey.
Proving either of those assertions about how good or bad Tottenham and Arsenal would be without those two players is hard to do, but the discussion here isn’t about where those clubs would be without Bale and Wilshere, respectively. The discussion here is if Jack Wilshere is, in fact, the future of Arsenal. After all, there’s a chance Wilshere could be like the new kid at school—he’s new and mysterious, and he seems more intriguing than everyone else because he’s a fresh face, but once you get to know him, you find out he’s just like all the other kids. Wilshere may be the soccer equivalent of that. He’s missed large chunks of time because of injuries, but the flashes of greatness he’s shown while he’s been healthy have been enough to inspire hope among almost all Arsenal fans, but is it an illusion? What if he’s just like all the other players? Has he been great? And if Wilshere is, in fact, “great,” then it stands to reason that he’d at least be better than someone his own age who plays (roughly) the same position – and on the same team – right?
Well, let’s compare Jack Wilshere to Aaron Ramsey and see which midfielder should be the future of Arsenal.
This comparison is made especially easy because not only do both players play similar positions, they also played roughly the same amount during the 2012-13 season. Ramsey played slightly more, most likely due to Wilshere’s late start to the season because of his ankle injury, but their games started were almost identical, and the difference in minutes could be evened out with a handful of games.
Wilshere Vs Ramsey Defending
The first area we’ll take a look at is defending. Both Ramsey and Wilshere play a “box to box” role, thus putting them in positions and situations where they would need to defend. Wilshere is known as being a bit more brutish and physical than Ramsey, so it should come as no surprise that Wilshere’s 50-50 win % is better than Ramsey’s for both, ground and aerial balls, and Wilshere’s win % on aerial 50-50 balls is significantly better than Ramsey’s.
One thing that stands out in Ramsey’s favour, however, is that he had more than twice as many tackles as Wilshere while playing only 400 more minutes, but as Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski point out in their book, Soccernomics, more tackling doesn’t necessarily mean better defence. It may mean a player got out of position and he made a last-ditch effort to save the play, and the effort happened to be successful. This line of thinking seems to have some weight behind it since Ramsey was dribbled around significantly more (32 times) than Wilshere was (just 20 times).
It’s also worth noting that Ramsey has almost twice as many interceptions as Wilshere, but Wilshere’s minutes per defensive error (848) is a much higher number than Ramsey’s (522). This means, essentially, that Jack Wilshere makes a defensive error roughly once every ten games while Ramsey makes a defensive error about every six games.
So while Ramsey may tackle more often and more efficiently than Wilshere – and have a significantly higher number of interceptions than his teammate – Wilshere gets the nod on defence because of his ability to win balls and his defensive positioning and discipline which result in fewer times dribbled around and less defensive errors.
+1 for Jack Wilshere.
Next Page: Wilshere Vs Ramsey: Possession
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Next on the list is possession. As midfielders, possession is an important part of the game, so this – along with passing – are the two areas we should put the most stock in.
According to the stats, the two are virtually even in this category. When you consider that Ramsey played about 25% more than Wilshere (around 2000 minutes for Ramsey while Wilshere played roughly 1600) and you adjust the numbers accordingly, there is almost no difference. Both lost possession once every five minutes, and the only real statiscical difference here is that Wilshere seems more adept at winning possession in the attacking third of the field, but the difference isn’t large enough to be considered statistically significant. The opportunities are so limited, that it could just be a string of good luck for Wilshere and/or a series of bad luck for Ramsey.
With that in mind, the possession category is a wash. Neither player performed significantly better or worse than the other.
Now let’s take a look at passing. This, along with possession, are arguably the two most important parts of a midfielder’s game, so as I mentioned before, we will pay special attention to these two categories.
Even when you adjust the numbers to account for the difference in minutes played, Ramsey still has an edge on the sheer number of open play passes (OPP), and a moderate advantage on completion percentage, but that doesn’t tell us everything we need to know.
Wilshere has a lower overall OPP completion percentage, he may actually be a better passer. Why? In order to truly gauge a player’s performance when it comes to passing, looking at the direction of the pass is crucial. Any player in the Premier League can pass side to side and backward, but passing forward and creating chances presents an entirely different challenge. This is what separates great midfielders from good midfielders. This is not to say that Wilshere is great and Ramsey is good. It’s simply saying that looking only at overall OPP completion percentage is like reading only one chapter of a book; you may be able to get an idea, but you won’t know the whole story.
Ramsey’s total pass completion percentage, which is over 4% higher than Wilshere’s, coupled with his higher OPP completion percentage (88 for Ramsey, 86 for Wilshere) seem to give a good indication that Ramsey is a superior passer, but what about the direction of the passes? Wilshere appears to be more aggressive with his passing, making 29% of his passes up the pitch compared to Ramsey making just 26% of his passes in a forward direction, so how does that affect the efficiency?
About all we can do is look at the Passing Zones charts and make an educated guess. The final third of the pitch is the area where passes are hardest to make, so it’s safe to assume that the passes made in this part of the pitch will have a lower completion percentage than the rest of the pitch.
Both players see their passing percentage drop as they progress up the field, but that’s not unusual. Ramsey’s completion percentage goes from 93% in his defensive third of the field, to 84% in the attacking zone, to 81% in the final third. Wilshere matches Ramsey’s 93% completion rate in the defensive third, but falls to 80% – well below Ramsey’s 84% in the attacking zone. Wilshere makes another big drop in the final third – this time coming up with a 78% completion rate, which is 3% behind Ramsey in that area of the field.
So again, this probably reaffirms the notion that Ramsey is a better passer. But is he a better creator?
Creating chances is about more than just passing; it’s also about taking risks. We see in the passing charts that Ramsey plays a lower percentage of balls forward than Wilshere does, but that’s probably not enough evidence to determine if Ramsey is too passive or not. It may mean that Wilshere is too risky, and Ramsey is playing the right pass. But what if only part of that is true? What if Ramsey is, technically, playing the right pass, but Wilshere is playing the creative pass? Creativity can be risky, so that could explain why Wilshere’s pass completion percentage drops more than Ramsey’s as they progress up the pitch.
After all, both have an identical 93% pass completion rate in the defensive half, so it’s not unreasonable to assume that they share similar skills when it comes to being able to complete a pass. But it seems Wilshere takes more risks as he moves up the field, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
According to Soccernomics, when Guus Hiddink took over the South Korean national team in 2000, he encouraged them to make “riskier passes” and not be afraid of making mistakes in the final third of the field. It’s worth mentioning that South Korea advanced to the semi-finals of the 2002 World Cup, but that is not the point. The point is that Hiddink is one of the most revered and respected managers of his generation. He’s been successful almost everywhere he’s managed, and he’s given that same advice to almost all of his teams.
Kuper (one of the authors of Soccernomics) states that the further up the pitch you progress, the less costly a mistake is. In your defensive third of the field, a mistake could mean there is nobody left between an opponent and the goalkeeper. In your attacking third of the field, a mistake may simply mean a change of possession or a sporadic counterattack. At any rate, having 70% of the pitch to rectify a mistake is much better than having only 30% of the pitch to make it up.
That means the fact that both players having a high pass completion percentage in their defensive side of the pitch is important. It also means that it’s important not to peg Wilshere as a poor passer just because his completion percentage is lower than Ramsey’s. That may seem contradictory, but it is not. As I stated, the fact that they both have a high – in fact, identical – completion percentage in their defensive third indicates that they have similar abilities when it comes to being able to complete a pass. However, as Wilshere progresses up the field, he seems to become more risky – which is good for someone playing a position where creating goals is a crucial element of the game.
Next Page: Wilshere Vs Ramsey: Creativity
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As was stated in the opening paragraph, neither player is known as a prolific goal scorer. In fact, between the two of them, they had just one goal the entire season, so their worth is based on creating chances and controlling the play, and the chart below leaves little room for argument: Wilshere is superior to Ramsey when it comes to creating chances.
Even when you take away the chances created from set pieces (Wilshere created 7 chances to Ramsey’s 0), Wilshere still has a higher rate of minutes per chance created. And when you include the chances from set pieces, Ramsey and Wilshere aren’t even close. Wilshere creates a chance every 36 minutes compared to Ramsey’s one every 46 minutes. That doesn’t necessarily mean Wilshere is creating a goal every 36 minutes, but he’s at least setting someone up for a possibility.
And don’t be deceived by the bottom stat: minutes per clear-cut chances created. The simple fact that the two men totaled just 9 clear cut changes in over 3500 combined minutes of play means that a difference of 3 is hardly statistically significant. A lucky break here or an unlucky break there for one or the other is just as likely of an explanation for the difference as one actually being better at creating clear-cut chances for his teammates.
Another stat that has little significance is crossing accuracy. Wilshere has a higher completion percentage on his crosses than Ramsey, but not one that’s statistically significant.
So with all these things in mind, in the area of creativity, even though he has a lower pass completion percentage, Wilshere gets the nod in this category because of his ability to create more chances than Ramsey.
Let’s review the conclusions.
Defensively, Wilshere’s ability to win 50-50 balls and avoid making defensive errors rank him slightly above Ramsey, who although he is a better tackler and has more interceptions than Wilshere, his defensive errors could put the team in more potential danger than Wilshere’s flaws.
+1 for Wilshere.
When it comes to possession, both players share almost identical numbers, so that’s a wash. No points for either.
In the area of passing, Ramsey seems to be more accurate, but Wilshere is more creative and useful. Ramsey deserves credit for having more accuracy than Wilshere, but in the end, Wilshere is the one who creates the chances, so he ultimately gets the nod in this area. Perhaps a +1 for Ramsey and a +1.5 for Wilshere is the fair thing to do.
It’s entirely possible, however, that if Ramsey were to take a few less risks on defence and a few more risks on the offensive side, he could be even better than Wilshere. After all, Ramsey has proven to be a more accurate passer than Wilshere, but Wilshere seems to have the mental edge on Ramsey because of his willingness to be aggressive on attack while being better disciplined than Ramsey on defence.
Perhaps eventually one of these two will emerge as a clear-cut superstar, but for now, it’s probably too soon to tag either of them as “great” players. There is no doubt, however, that they’re both solid players who Arsenal fans have justifiably high hopes for.
Most would argue that having a solid midfield is the most important thing to build a team around, and these two players give Arsenal a chance to do that. And with young players like Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Keiran Gibbs, and Carl Jenkison to complement these two, it will be interesting to see what Arsenal can achieve in the future if they are able to keep all of these players.
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