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The Importance of Santi Cazorla and the Midfield Pivot to Arsenal

As we bask in the aftermath of another lack luster Arsenal performance we are left trying to assess what the cause of it all is. For many it’s looking at what’s on the field and trying to discern how so many players could look lost. For me it was looking at what we didn’t have.

To me it’s quite simple – without Santi Cazorla in the side we’ve ground to a halt.

Santi is everything that makes this club tick when it’s in possession. As a team that likes to play the ball out of the back it’s essential to have that player who can come into space and act as the transition between to two CBs and either the midfielders or the fullbacks.

Santi Cazorla fighting for the ball

Santi’s ball skills are sorely missed

Yesterday against PSG, without a successful pivot player, PSG were able to isolate the Arsenal defenders in 1v1 situations. At times PSG screened off the passes and forced either a back pass to Ospina, a play to the other CB (which at times gave possession away) or kicked the ball long over the top which also results in the a likelihood of losing the ball easier.

Wenger opted for Ramsey in the pivot role of the deep lying play maker and while he wasn’t awful – one of the biggest criticisms I have of the Welsh midfielder is that he doesn’t possess the discipline enough to find or create that space that is needed to be successful in that role.

So why is Santi the key to everything?

First let’s take a look at the role of the pivot or number 6 – the role Santi currently plays for Arsenal. Depending on the coach and system this could be called a deep lying play maker, or even the a defensive midfielder. Regardless of what you call the role it’s a vital role when you’ve successfully broken down the opposition attack and want to secure and maintain possession.

Positional understanding is vital for the pivot. A player who plays this role must possess tactical awareness, vision, a range of passing, tackling skills and a keen ability to read the game.  A good pivot player is a master at finding space and angles to receive and distribute passes.

Having a good pivot player affords the team so many options when playing out of the back. First it simply helps link play with an emphasis to go forward. Receiving the ball deep in our zone the pivot player is best positioned to either distribute to the 10 or the wide players (fullbacks or wing forwards.)

When I’ve worked with my teams and players on this role what we focus in on are the following:

  • Body angle to receive the pass and play forwards
  • Receiving areas of foot or body
  • Quick combinations and limiting touches to think quickly
  • Angles, distances and areas of structure to penetrate effectively and patiently
  • Understanding slow and quick play through the areas
  • Timing of passes – ‘La Pausa’
  • Use the 3 passing lines (in front of Defenders, around the Defenders and through the Defenders) to create opportunities to penetrate the opposition and advance forwards utilizing the Pivot
  • Passing options around and ahead of the ball

Go through the attributes listed above and these coaching points and when you think of any player on the Arsenal squad – it’s Santi. He successfully executes all the skills required to deliver against these coaching points. Sure, there are minute details that likely need to be fixed but for the most part Santi executes each one of these points effectively.

He’s especially good at the Spanish concept of ‘La Pausa.’ Simply put it’s the waiting for the moment to execute the right pass or play to a teammate in a positional advantage.  The most common example of this is the connection from Santi to Özil.

It’s no wonder Özil has suffered immensely from Cazorla’s absence. The Spaniard’s first option always seemed to be Özil in his 10 role. His movement ahead of Cazorla meant that the right

Wenger and Cazorla chat it up

Even the boss must miss Santi

angles to create a successful transition where always likely to be available in front of him.

Without Santi in the squad the ball isn’t getting to Özil as often and when he does get the ball, it’s because he has had to come deep to get it. That completely takes Özil out of his game. He is not a player who is going to be effective at taking players on 1v1. His best role is receiving that first pass and then unlocking defenses with his own killer pass or a moment of skill.

Additionally, watch the fullbacks without Santi, there is a little hesitation in going forward. They don’t know whether or not the ball is going to be there. I’ve been watching the FBs and there is a slight pause when we get the ball, as if to wait to see where the ball is going to come from.

If I were to watch the same situations with Santi in the squad, I wonder if I would see them advance without hesitation, knowing the ball was at Santi’s feet and that it would either find its way to them via one of his trademark passes or via a connection with one of the other midfield players

Santi is integral to everything Arsenal do with the ball. As is Mesut Özil but is it any wonder that at the time Santi went out not only did Özil start to suffer but so did Arsenal.

James McNichols (@gunnerblog) for UMAXIT football did an exceptional piece on Santi’s importance and who the likely candidate would be to replace him. What Are Arsenal’s Options In Santi Cazorla’s Absence looks at who the likely players are to replace Santi while he’s out.

The choices available at this moment are either Aaron Ramsey or £35m swiss acquisition Granit Xhaka. McNichols like me seems to feel that Xhaka may be the better fit in this role. For me it all comes down to Xhaka’s positional discipline. Ramsey wants to get forward too much and that leaves that gap the pivot should fill open and unavailable. (James mentions Jack Wilshere but since he’s not here I’m avoiding that)

Xhaka has shown that in that role he will sit tight, present himself as the option and offer the range of passing needed to exploit the space created by Özil and offered by the opposition.

Whomever it is that replaces him, without Santi Arsenal are teetering through another lackluster November. Without a definite time table on the Spanaird’s return, Wenger has to find that player who can bring the same attributes to the team or risk falling further off the pace.



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