Arsenal have a big, little problem. Santi Cazorla is injured, isn’t due back until late March and there isn’t a single player in our squad equipped to come anywhere near replacing the passing, vision and above all, intelligence, the diminutive Spaniard brings to the centre of our midfield.
After drawing 0-0 at home to Southampton last night, many will point to ‘chances created’ and ‘saves made by Fraser Forster’ stats, to suggest our main issues were poor finishing and fine opposition goalkeeping, but I think that would be highlighting temporary symptoms and failing to acknowledge the underlying cause of our recent malaise – we’re Santi-less.
Here’s what I wrote about Cazorla back in July, following a pre-season win over Everton in the Barclays Premier League Trophy in Asia:
As for Cazorla’s chipped assist from inside the centre circle, well, the vision and execution using his ‘weaker’ left foot was as majestic as his all-round display. We’ll have a real problem replacing Santi’s outstanding skillset when he does eventually depart, because for me there isn’t another player in our squad right now who can replicate his talents in the middle of the park – a velcroed virtuosity that has become vital to our performance and overall pattern of play this past year or so.
… Ozil fed Cazorla on the right following a short corner and having weighed up his options, the Spaniard decided to go it alone, twisting and turning to bamboozle the defending James McCarthy on the edge of the area before drilling home at the near post leaving the ‘keeper motionless. And Cazorla was at it again just four minutes later, exchanging passes with Mesut Ozil to allow the German to sidefoot emphatically into the net for three nil, making it two assists and a goal for Arsenal’s captain on the day. I would tie him to as long a deal as possible as he shows no sign of being debilitated by age.
If Petr Cech permeates a sense of calm from between the sticks that has a positive effect on our defenders in front of him, then Cazorla’ s coolness under pressure, quick-thinking and precise circulation of the ball gives the team fluency, helps us to maintain better shape and regulates the team’s rhythm, more so than any other player, in any other position in the side. More so than Mesut, even.
That cock-sure conviction of Cazorla’s spreads throughout the team in my opinion, and crucially, to our forwards when presented with a goal-scoring chance, because the build-up play often sets the tone and temperament of the move’s finale.
Our finishing last night, exactly like the rest of our play from the back four to up front, was erratic and rushed, rather than cold and calculated like clockwork, as it has been ever since Santi was re-stationed to the middle just over a year ago and he produced that phenomenal individual performance at Etihad stadium as we beat Manchester City 2-0 in January 2015.
Theo Walcott seems to be the go-to-guy to vent frustration at for the stalemate with Southampton and on the one hand hand, I understand completely why. His contribution from the bench after replacing Joel Campbell was far too peripheral and he fluffed probably our best chance of the game in all-too-typical Feo-style.
On the other hand though, he provided a decent cross from which Alexis Sanchez headed goal-wards, and also found Ozil with a low pass across the edge of Saints’ penalty area before the German’s one-two with Sanchez nearly led to a goal. Overall though, I agree whole-heartedly with those that say Theo’s all-round game just isn’t good enough for him to function to the requisite standard on the flanks, so he either plays as the striker or not at all.
But the player whose display makes me want to scream in frustration and bewilderment isn’t Walcott, or even the past-it Mathieu Flamini, who kind of tempers his dreadful on-the-ball ability by making one or two important tackles, interceptions or clearances a game.
No, it’s Aaron Ramsey, who in my opinion, cannot pass the ball anywhere near well enough to be playing centrally for us if we want to be a team that controls possession. If we decide to sit back and adopt a contain and counter stlye-of-play, it might suit the Welshman more, but not in the current set-up.
I much prefer him playing from the right when he isn’t tasked with dictating our play and can instead provide energy going both ways on the flank and drift infield to provide a goal-threat. That way, he’s much less a passer and gets afforded the time he needs to bring the ball under control and decide what to do with it because he too, like Walcott, needs longer than quicker-witted and more naturally gifted footballers, like Cazorla.
So what do we do moving forward? Your guess is as good as mine but it’s Arsene Wenger’s job to find a solution. As far as I’m concerned, we either reconfigure our style or try something new like playing Ozil alongside Coquelin in the deeper midfield role or even throwing Alex Iwobi into Premier League action because I’m struggling to find more reliable passers in our squad, in the continued absences of Cazorla and Jack Wilshere. Maybe Mohamed Elneny is the best available man for the job, but judging by his debut, he needs time to acclimatize to the pace of the English game and build confidence.
All that said however, we can of course still get good results without Cazorla, as we showed with four straight wins in all competitions following his injury at Norwich at the end of November, it’s just that we’re not as consistent in our play and that’s reflected in our more recent run of form. Also, the up-coming Barcelona double-header really worries me without Santi playing, because of just how important the rare phases of possession against the Catalans can be if we’re to have a chance against them.
As it stands domestically though, we’re down to fourth in the table but as I’ve said all season, just two shy of my tip for the crown in Man City, which means we remain firmly in contention. Leicester are a further three ahead and that makes our situation look worse obviously, as they continue to play well and win their games. But surely the most most surprising story in Premier League history, in terms of a title challenge, will find a more expected conclusion and they’ll drop away from the top a little. Won’t they?
If the Foxes win their next two at City and against us at Emirates stadium, I might change my tune but I think Leicester’s is a bubble long-overdue a bursting. As for that lot down the Seven Sisters Road, they might be flying high and getting giddy at edging us on goal difference right now, but let’s see how they fare when Europa League football returns and it’s ‘spiral’ time. Their new Jermaine Jenas – Dele Alli – may be on fire but always remember one thing: Tottenham are sh*t.