EPL 2016/17: Arsenal need Santi Cazorla back
After losing on the opening day of the Premier League against Liverpool, Arsenal managed to prove their title credentials once again against all odds this season by going through 10 games without a loss in the Premier League and 16 matches in all competitions.
The main reason for their resurgence this season has been the form of their Spanish maestro Santi Cazorla. Since he picked up an Achilles injury in Arsenal’s 6–0 win against Ludogorets, Arsenal have found it difficult to dominate their matches like they usually do. The Gunners are by no means a one-man team. In Ozil, Sanchez and Walcott to name a few, Arsenal possess one of the best squads in the Premier League right now.
However, if there is one player whose absence alters the whole tempo and structure of their team it’s Santi, and their performance against Middlesbrough and Tottenham are evidence of that. Out of the 4 games Cazorla has not started for the Gunners this season, they have won just one, against Sunderland, of the 8 games he has started, Arsenal have won 7 and drawn 1.
Absence felt against Spurs and Boro
In their match against Middlesbrough, Arsenal were forced to play with Coquelin and Elneny who are naturally deep-lying players. They managed to do a good job defensively by helping out the back four but when it came to moving the ball up, they lacked that killer pass to split the opponent's defence open and that’s what Cazorla brings to the team.
What Cazorla offers is a deep-lying creativity, linking the play from defence to attack, and crucially doing everything at a high speed. The Spanish playmaker offers something unique to the Arsenal team, his defence-splitting passes, quick feet and his desire to always move the ball up front instead of sideways is a defining aspect of his game.
The Gunners missed his presence against Tottenham too. Spurs sat relatively deep, employing a back three and crowding out Alexis Sanchez and Ozil. Wenger selected Xhaka and Coquelin at the base of his midfield, and while both of them performed well defensively, they were not able to help Arsenal going forward. In the 95 minutes against Tottenham, the Gunners managed just two shots on target and, for the first time this season, had less than 50% of the possession.
Lack of creativity without Santi
Without Cazorla in the team, Arsenal clearly have a hard time dominating play. There is no doubt that Arsenal are more of a goal threat when the 31-year-old is on the pitch. Arsenal have managed just 4 goals without Cazorla, whereas they have scored 19 goals in games he has played.
Arsenal’s dependency on the Spaniard was perfectly displayed in their 3–0 win over Chelsea. Cazorla had the most passes that match (74) and had 30 successful passes in the final third, only second to teammate Ozil, who had 34. While the Gunners’ attackers took most of the credit for their win against Chelsea, it was the diminutive midfielder’s quick, precise passing that was the difference in that match.
He is also ranked the third best in terms of the highest average passers in the league with 70 passes, as well as currently having a 91.3% pass success rate, the best form any Premier League player has over the course of the last five matches.
Arsenal suffered for most of last season when Cazorla got injured and only returned towards the end of the season, and his absence was probably the main reason Arsenal missed their biggest chance in years to win the Premier League. If Arsene Wenger’s men are to challenge for the title this season, they need to get Santi Cazorla back into the team as soon as possible.
Age has not yet caught up to him
If their matches against Tottenham and Middlesbrough are anything to go by it’s proof that the 31-year-old is essential in linking up play between the Arsenal players. In the long term, Wenger needs to come up with a way for Arsenal to cope without Cazorla. The Spaniard is not getting any younger, and there are other players who will demand regular first-team action if Cazorla’s injury issues become a routine thing. But right now, the midfield maestro is simply too important to be cast aside. He will be turning 32 next month but his performances on the field are still top class.
Arsenal play Manchester United and PSG in their next two matches and having Cazorla in the team will definitely make a huge difference in the outcome. The international break seems to have come just at the right time for the Gunners and Santi Cazorla as it gives him another two weeks to recover from his injuries and maybe get fit in time for these matches.
At the moment, Santi Cazorla seems to be the catalyst at Arsenal and if the last few games are anything to go by, Arsenal cannot do without him.