Santi Cazorla has been phenomenal this season, and has thrived when deployed in a deeper midfield role. The Spaniard is a fan favourite, and is extremely popular not just with the Arsenal faithful, but with football lovers in general.
His role in the side has still been somewhat unappreciated however, and – along with the emergence of Francis Coquelin – he has been a huge part of our newfound defensive stability in midfield.
But why has he become so important to the way we play? And who would we replace him with if we needed to?
The 30-year-old has been moved around a lot since his arrival, with Arsene Wenger experimenting by utilising him in the No.10 role, out on the wing, and now in a deeper role as well.
He is playing arguably some of the best football of his Arsenal career at the moment, and much to the surprise of many, he appears tailor made for his new, more defensive position.
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Our midfield has been a cause for concern in recent years, and we have struggled since the departure of Patrick Vieira and Gilberto Silva. Wenger has tried a number of different combinations, but something has always been missing.
You could argue that it was simply a case of us lacking a tough tackling midfielder – a problem that has been remedied by Coquelin. But it may have been more than that, as we have lacked players that function well as a cohesive unit, not just a single player.
The likes of Mikel Arteta, Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey, Cesc Fabregas, Mathieu Flamini, Alex Song, Tomas Rosicky, and even Denilson are all (or were in their day) excellent midfielders in their own rights, and would potentially thrive in the right setup. They usually lacked the right partners to compliment them however, meaning our midfield often looked disjointed and weak.
Our current midfield trio of Coquelin, Cazorla, and Mesut Özil has proved to be a fantastic success, and the former Malaga man’s ability to provide a link between his two teammates is a massive part of that.
He has always been a superb attacking talent, and his ability to score and create with both feet makes him a threat from almost anywhere on the pitch. He has also surprised many with his discipline and defensive tenacity this season however, and he boasts a number of talents which mean he is perfectly suited to his new role.
The likes of Ramsey and Wilshere may offer a similar defensive eagerness, and arguably even more pace, higher energy levels, and more strength in the tackle. One thing neither player even comes close to matching the ambidextrous footballing wizard for though, is his ability to hold onto the ball. Cazorla is unbelievable when it comes to keeping the ball away from his opponents, and he is rarely dispossessed. His quick feet have seen him wriggle out of the tightest of spots, and he often worms his way through several players when he looks certain to lose the ball.
This talent means there is less pressure put on Coquelin, with the Frenchman confident that Cazorla can not only keep possession, but use the ball wisely to start attacks. Wilshere and Ramsey are both superb players, but can occasionally be liabilities in midfield. They have both been known lose the ball in dangerous areas, often allowing the opposition to mount threatening counter-attacks.
Cazorla also excels at long ranged passes, meaning he can spray the ball and assist his teammates from deep in midfield. This ability was on display during our 3-1 win over Hull last Monday, with Ramsey’s goal coming from a sublime long ball from Cazorla.
This is a talent matched arguably only by Özil in the current squad, and with our penchant for tiki taka football, the ability to play the long ball makes us less predictable in attack.
Cazorla is also surprisingly tough in the tackle, and regularly throws himself into the challenge to win the ball back. He has gotten through an impressive amount of defensive work this season, and it would be difficult to find a player with his skillset if and when he eventually leaves or retires.
The three realistic options we have at our disposal at the moment are the aforementioned duo of Ramsey and Wilshere, along with the currently sidelined Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The Ox’s future appears to lie in the centre of midfield, but at the moment you would certainly say he was a liability playing there. His attacking talent and his strength on the ball are unquestionably fantastic, but he is regularly dispossessed, and his defensive discipline is not the best.
Ramsey has often proved an excellent replacement, but his inclusion in the box-to-box role must be dependent on our opposition. The Welshman doesn’t possess the same ability to hold onto the ball or start attacks from deep, and is therefore wasted playing so far into our own half.
Unless we buy a ready made replacement, that leaves Wilshere to fill in for the Spanish international. The 23-year-old has just returned from a lengthy spell on the sidelines, and if he can remain fit then he is my choice to deputise for Cazorla.
The young Gunner is certainly capable of starting attacks from deep, although he does so with his excellent driving runs rather than long balls. He plays a high-risk high-reward brand of football though, and when he is dispossessed we are often left exposed.
There are very few players with the skillset Cazorla boasts, but Wilshere is certainly closer than many. He has shown his ability to play a deeper role while on international duty with England, and could end up in a similar role for us.
Hopefully Cazorla will not only keep up his current form, but commit his future to Arsenal as well. But when we do eventually have to say goodbye to him, will we need to dip our toes into the transfer market? Or is Wilshere the answer in midfield?