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Losing the Scintillating Santi Cazorla Cost Arsenal the Title

In the opening match of the 2015/2016 season, Arsene Wenger started Aaron Ramsey alongside Francis Coquelin in the deep lying playmaker role only to have to switch to Santi Cazorla in that role at half time. By that time however it was too late, the damage was done. Arsenal would go on to lose 2-0.

Fast forward to November. Arsenal were purring and well within the title hunt. Sadly, on November 29 against Norwich a slew of injuries would create the annual log jam in the Arsenal training room. The biggest and most impactful was Santi Cazorla.

Then like opening day the impact on Arsenal and their title hopes was profound.

In the post-mortem that will follow this season, it’s inevitable that injuries in some way will be used as a reason for the Gunner’s title capitulation. To some extent – that is true. Yes, there are other variables but that is for another time. However, when we look on the field and how epically morose we’ve become, you can look back to the fateful day in November as to when Santi Cazorla got injured and we found out the 5’4” “little magician” would be out for a prolonged period of time as to one of the biggest reasons why Arsenal are missing out on the title.

Santi Cazorla signed form Malaga for a reported £12 million fee, has grown in to a fan favorite. In fact his former Villareal teammate Carlos Marchena had this to say –

“Anyone who has played with him knew that everyone in England would fall in love with him,” Marchena says.

Joan Capdevila, Cazorla’s room mate at Villarreal, added:

“He does things you’ve never seen. You want to know how good Santi is? Type ‘Cazorla, Seitaridis’ into YouTube.”

Santi Cazorla is the complete player. He hardly ever loses the ball, he knows instinctively, when the change direction, change speed, retain possession or look for the pass. He has in the past and does for Arsenal impose a style and dynamic that elevates a team. In fact when he left Villareal and Malaga both players and coaching staff lamented the loss citing his absence as the reason those teams suffered

Wenger had this to say in 2012:

“He opens defences with the quality of his passing and he gives us a technical security that allows us to escape when we are under pressure. He can make us stronger and more efficient.”

So is it any wonder that without him, Arsenal have looked anemic. All the traits mentioned by those who know him as well as that slick, effective two-footedness makes Cazorla a rarity and it makes it equally hard for anyone to take the ball off him

In the away match against City last season, Santi’s close ball control, range of passing and decision making effectively got Arsenal out of danger when Manchester City employed the press to win the ball high in the Arsenal zone. It’s his ability to see the play and look for the first outlet or decide to dribble the ball that puts him heads and tales above the other Arsenal options that have filled in to the role.

Against Swansea and with Cazorla out, Wenger used Coquelin and Ramsey alongside each other. It wasn’t effective at all compared to the Cazorla/Coquelin tandem as neither could seemingly work their way out of even the most basic of presses.

Unfortunately for Arsenal there is no suitable replacement in the squad for him. Ramsey isn’t as good technically and his decision making in passing is questionable. Arteta can’t stand on his own two legs and the less said about a midfield that features both Coquelin and Flamini in the better. Elneny has come in and added some stability to the midfield alongside Coquelin but let’s be honest he is no Cazorla.

But its not only finding a replacement for his ability that has hampered Arsenal. Other players are suffering without him in the squad.

Mesut Özil is a prime example. Without Cazorla in the side, Özil has started to drift deeper and deeper into the midfield to win the ball and start play. Except it negates Özil’s strengths. Özil ability to find space, beat a player with a deft skill move and then make the right pass is what makes Özil so good. He is not the best dribbler of the ball and when he tries to dribble too much he loses the ball.

I’ve always thought of it in this sense – if you watch the NFL a quarterback has a series of reads or options before they pass. They will quickly cycle through each one looking to make the best pass possible. It’s the same for Cazorla and Özil is his number one option when Santi begins the transition. He looks instinctively for Özil knowing he will likely be in space to receive the ball and create the attack around the 18.

Without this connection between the two, our possession suffers. It’s less effective because we’re relying on Özil or someone else who don’t have the skill set that Cazorla does. Now instead of the controlling the ball with possession having any meaning or reason, we’ve resorted to pass, pass, pass, pass (pass again) and then lose the ball. It’s also no coincidence that Özil’s creativity is sporadic because of how he has adapted to the loss of Cazorla.

The fact is, even at 30 years old, Santi Cazorla is integral to Arsenal’s entire style of play. He is the conduit through which everything flowed. Santi said in an interview that his confidence and ability grows as he gets more of the ball and in the deeper lying role, he certainly did that and so did Arsenal’s. Without him we are flat.

Everything that was good about the first half of this season, bears looking at and under further examination, it’s quite possible when we examine it we will see that Santi Cazorla was the fulcrum of a lot of our success and one of the primary reasons we didn’t win the title this year.

special thanks to Jane Cavendish (@jcav90) and Daniel Cowan (@thedanielcowan) for their insights in the crafting of this piece.



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