Sans Santi

Tim Stillman column Arseblog

The news that Santi Cazorla requires surgery on an ongoing achilles problem was met with predictable and understandable disappointment last week. The Spaniard starts near enough every match that he is fit to play in for a reason. Very few in the Premier League, let alone Arsenal’s squad, replicate his skillset. It took a couple of years to find his best position in the Gunners’ setup, but moving him into a deep lying playmaker role has proved to be a masterstroke.

Cazorla’s most recent injury coincided with a tough run of fixtures and, by Arsene’s own admission, it has taken time for the team to retune. The technical security the Spaniard provides, married to his ability to dribble away from pressure, make him a vital cog in the Arsenal machine. His attributes are unique and cannot be replaced like for like, so the manager has had to tinker with the formula.

However, removing the reliance on Santi was a riddle Wenger was going to have to face sooner rather than later. He will be 32 next week and there are significant rumours that the club were well aware of his achilles issues in advance of this season, hence the reluctance to extend his contract. It is understandable that Wenger did not want to broach the subject of reconfiguring his central midfield earlier in the season. Centre half Shkodran Mustafi was bedding into life at Arsenal, while the decision to move Alexis Sanchez into a centre forward role meant another major adjustment to the spine of the team.

Arsene opted to stick with the tried and test Coqzorla combination in the early weeks of the season to maintain a semblance of stability at the core of the side. Coquelin and Cazorla is far from a perfect midfield duo. Santi’s goals and assists have disappeared into extinction since his switch into a deeper role. His importance to the function of the team almost entirely mitigates this, but for your midfield duo to not contribute a single goal from open play in their time together does create an issue.

I have a suspicion that this was a partnership that worked because each player covered one another’s weaknesses, rather than because they accentuated one another’s strengths. I believed, perhaps inaccurately, that Granit Xhaka had been purchased to bring the destructive and creative properties of each player into one composite body in central midfield. One of Cazorla’s most valuable characteristics is what Wenger recently described as “the moderate value pass from low to high midfield.”

Granit Xhaka is the most capable of mimicking that particular virtue and his absence from the line up for draws with Manchester United and Paris Saint Germain was notable. Arsenal struggled to build play in both of those games and left Alexis and Özil too isolated. Whether it is due to his lack of mobility or his occasional lapses of discipline, Wenger has been reluctant to hand the keys of Arsenal’s midfield motor to the Swiss international until recently.

As I wrote last week, Arsenal’s shape has morphed into somewhere between a 4-4-2, a 4-4-1-1 and a 4-4-2-0 with Alexis and Özil rotating the number 10 and false 9 roles. The Gunners’ midfield shape has taken a lurch back to the earlier years of Wenger’s reign, with something close to an orthodox four. Xhaka’s power and ability to break the lines with his passing have recalled the manager’s early season comparisons with Emmanuel Petit.

This partially explains why Theo Walcott has not been quite as productive in recent weeks. In the early part of the season, he played as a kind of lurking wide striker, ready to dart into the space vacated by Alexis. However, the Chilean has warmed to the number 9 role and his sense of timing is better and the same is true of Mesut Özil running from deep. Walcott is not as valuable in terms of occupying centre halves now.

Without the overlapping runs of Bellerin, Theo is being asked to play more like an orthodox right winger as opposed to a wide forward. With a centre half at right-back, Wenger seemed to shift emphasis to building attacks down the left for games against West Ham and Basel. Monreal effectively took on the Bellerin mantle in East London, racing ahead in support of his winger and Gibbs did much the same in Switzerland.

Chamberlain visibly enjoyed this shift of emphasis and The Ox is more of an out and out winger than a wide forward, so the subtle shift in gear suits him too. Iwobi might be a better bet for games where greater control is desirable, given his predeliction for dropping into central midfield to create another passing option. Arsene has had to accept that Özil’s presence in a midfield three leaves the team a little shorthanded in the centre of the pitch.

Now he seems to have submitted entirely to that fate and the German is considered more a part of the forward line than the midfield now. This has made Arsenal’s games against West Ham and Bournemouth slightly chaotic affairs and that sense of anarchy suits the team when they play the sort of opponent not set up exclusively to defend in numbers. Again, Chamberlain is a player that benefits from this sort of slugfest encounter.

Essentially, Arsene seems to have accepted that midfield control is much more difficult without Cazorla, so there is little point in trying for certain fixtures. For the United game he chose security with Elneny and Coquelin, but the team lacked creativity as a result. Xhaka and Coquelin may well prove to be his favoured duo for away matches in particular. The Swiss can progress the game quickly upfield with his passing, both short and long. Arsenal will have less possession without Santi but Xhaka ensures that when they do get the ball, he can make it count through decisive action.

Whereas Coquelin, as he demonstrated for the opening goal against West Ham, is capable of following Alexis’ lead and enacting a pressing tactic. Though this really only works against a certain type of opponent. When the conditions are not suited to the Frenchman, he can often look like a passenger. The manager might conclude that Ramsey is a better fit alongside Xhaka for matches against deeper defences.

To win the league, Arsenal are going to have to play closer to their ceiling than their title rivals. City have a better squad and Chelsea and Liverpool have the advantage of playing once a week. The Gunners need to be the best version of themselves to stand a chance of coming out on top. The back four and the front 2 look pretty settled and it’s a question of keeping those players as fit and available as possible. The key to the team’s chances lie in the heart of their midfield and how well Arsene spins the plates in this area will determine their chances of glory.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto


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