Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Santi still has some gifts to bring

In this somewhat tumultuous start to the season, few people associated with Arsenal can claim to have done much good for their reputations thus far. Of the players, only Jack Wilshere, new man Danny Welbeck, Nacho Monreal and Santi Cazorla have really pushed on to levels anything beyond where they were last season. Wilshere seems to be steadily maturing, and though a lot of time and patience is needed, there have been highly encouraging signs. Welbeck appears to really want to make the most of his opportunities to finally play as a lone centre forward, and Monreal had the chance – until his injury – to have a run of games to show that he is more capable than many are willing to admit.

Cazorla is, perhaps, the most interesting case. After winning the club’s internal Player of the Year award in his first year, last season he was more inconsistent, with the team’s collective injury issues in the forward positions and a couple of his very own not doing much to aid the cause. With that, the fact that he will turn 30 in December, the signing of Alexis Sánchez and the emergences of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as a more legitimate first team options, the expectation was that Cazorla would steadily retreat into more of a ‘forward utility player’ type of role this season, maintaining importance while slowly, seamlessly being phased out.

However, what most of the performances so far this year have showed us is that Arsenal’s best team still contains Cazorla in some capacity. When he is placed out wide, the team functions best with his opposite number being a more direct and explosive player (like Theo Walcott), allowing him to play a role with more involvement in the middle third and the vital slower and shorter play in the final third. He works well with Mesut Özil from the wings, too. Where players like Alexis and Oxlade-Chamberlain play on the higher risk-higher gain margin, Cazorla offers a safety which is essential to forming a cogent attacking unit.

Cazorla provides this balance better than anyone else in the squad can. He has always been in that class below the very elite playmakers of the world – the likes of David Silva and Özil – but on account of this, he has both the willingness and the ability to play more of a second fiddle type of role in his teams. His extraordinary ability with the ball at his feet and intelligence in play make him ideal for such a task, and even in a less exalted role, he very rarely becomes a peripheral figure in matches. His limitations mean that realistically, almost any side with him as their main creative figure can set achieving Champions League football as the peak of their league possibilities, but takes on a different life with him as the ‘second man’.

His presence, combined with Özil’s and at least some technical competence in central midfield allow Arsenal to control games far more and far better. Their more measured and intelligent use of the ball than any of their alternatives in the current side have let this incarnation of Arsenal flourish as one of the more minimalistic (as it were) sides of the Arsène Wenger era. Clever, patient and effective; Cazorla and the first choice midfield three made the on-the-ball side of that possible.

But now, Arsenal will be without Özil until Christmas, opening up both a creative void in the side and something of a power vacuum. In the time between Cesc Fabregas’ departure and Özil’s arrival, creativity became a major problem. In 11/12, the Gunners scraped by thanks mostly to Robin van Persie doing the work of five people. In 12/13, Cazorla arrived, but the problems persisted. He could not change things alone in the way Özil did (initially without Cazorla) a year later.

Cazorla’s tendency to hold on to the ball for too long in central areas is well-tempered when he has the wing as his base position – or even when he has been further back in central midfield with more space and time on the ball – but it proved itself to be a problem when he was deployed as a number 10. The situation now is that despite his issues in the role, he may be the best option in the squad for it, should Arsenal play a setup that requires one.

The question of the system is the most prominent. The 4-1-4-1 or 4-2-3-1 debate has been going since the start of the season, mostly through the prism of Özil’s form, but also the struggles of the more exposed defence and defensive midfielder. Though now Özil is out, there is the question of whether a system which has a fairly high level of reliance on its number 10 is worth returning to with less accomplished 10 options.

Özil’s injury does not change any of the issues with the 4-1-4-1. It still leaves the team too short in numbers and fluidity going forward, and even though they formed a mostly effective defensive block against Chelsea, there are few other sides against whom they will have to sit so deep. That said, if Arsène Wenger does persist with the 4-1-4-1, most of the team picks itself, with the central midfielders being a rotation of Cazorla, Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere.

What he may find now is that they are too short of the right type of wide player to persist with the 4-1-4-1. Wenger appears to be resistant to using Cazorla wide in the new system, perhaps given the importance of playing in transition and stretching the oppositions with fewer players high into the other half. Only Alexis Sánchez and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, in this squad, can do most of what is asked from them in the 4-1-4-1 (though both do so better in the 4-2-3-1).

However, Cazorla himself, the aforementioned pair, Walcott, Gnabry and even Lukas Podolski, Joel Campbell, Tomáš Rosicky and Jack Wilshere are capable wide choices in the 4-2-3-1 (to varying degrees). Then from there, Ramsey, Wilshere and Cazorla are all options for central midfield (in order of preference), as well as being options for 10 as well (in backwards order of preference). Rosicky is also an option for the 10 role, ranking somewhere either side of Wilshere, form depending. They could even try Alexis in a central role off the main centre forward, but my belief is that would only work with Ramsey in central midfield and Cazorla wide, on account of how much more conservative play with the ball and ability to win it back quickly would be needed.

It would be wise to expect a lot of tinkering, switching between the two formations and subbing in various different options before something in the way of real balance is found without Özil. While Ramsey remains out, Cazorla and Wilshere will surely make up the middle pair, but it is anyone guess whether it will be a 1-2 or 2-1 setup. Once Ramsey is back, there should be more rotation, with Cazorla playing mostly on the left, given Wenger will probably want to field Ramsey and Wilshere together as much as possible, and moving centrally as and when either of the other two is not there.

Cazorla’s age dictates Arsenal should really be making plans for a life without him in the not too distant future, but his versatility, skill, altruism and intelligence mean he will always be of some use to whatever squad he is in. Hopefully Wilshere can continue his good form and apparent growth in maturity and eventually take on that responsible ball-player and carrier mantle, but it will need time. It was the case before Özil’s injury, but it is even more so afterwards, that Cazorla remains an integral part of this side.

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