Player Focus: Ageing Rosicky proving he still has something to offer Arsenal
It was, understandably, Alexis Sanchez who took most of the praise after Arsenal’s straightforward victory over Stoke City on Sunday, but he wasn’t the only midfielder to sparkle. Santi Cazorla played with his usual chipmunk enthusiasm while Tomas Rosicky was exceptional, forever finding space and linking the play. The Czech has come to occupy a strange place, obviously hugely gifted, frequently highly effective, yet so often injured or left out that every time he plays it comes as a slight jolt to realise that, at 34, he hasn’t retired or gone off to play in the Middle-East or MLS.
It was Rosicky’s quick return pass that laid in Alexis Sanchez for the second goal, but more than that he operated as a mobile hub, always moving, always laying the ball off, always ready to play one-twos. In total, he played 69 passes against Stoke – more than anybody apart from Cazorla – and completed 89.9% of them. Cazorla’s completion rate was actually even better, but Rosicky’s included two accurate long balls (out of four attempted) and an accurate through ball, as well as two key passes.
His nickname of the Little Mozart feels misleading: Rosicky is less of a composer than a conductor, somebody whose prompting, probing and understanding of the game allows others to express themselves, rather than necessarily being a playmaker in the more traditional sense. Perhaps he’s a player who tends to catch the eye when Arsenal play well, and he certainly isn’t physically imposing, but when Rosicky is in full flow, he brings a majesty to Arsenal’s passing.
Yet Sunday’s game was only Rosicky’s third start of the season. He played a handful of substitute appearances at the end of September and in October, but then vanished again, only re-emerging on Boxing Day, when he scored in the 2-1 win over QPR. He then played – not especially well – in the 2-0 defeat at Southampton and again against Hull City in the FA Cup.
So where has he been? As ever with Rosicky, it’s something of a mystery. A hamstring (or perhaps thigh, reports were divided) injury suffered playing for the Czech Republic caused his most recent absence, and he had also suffered a knock to the calf while on international duty in October. The website physioroom lists 38 injuries suffered by Rosicky since joining Arsenal in 2006 (although not one for the start of this season, which is a little baffling).
And that, really, has always been the issue for Rosicky, who, in the 16 years since he made his debut, has played only 351 league games (although he has racked up 99 international caps). If he can stay fit, though, it’s obvious what he brings. The assist for Sanchez – and there was still a lot of work for the Chilean to do – may only have been the 13th since 2009 (remarkably in that time, he’s been booked twice as often as he’s set up goals), but his pass completion rate has usually been at around 85%, with around one key pass and 0.4 to 0.5 through balls per game.
He’s not spectacular, but he is consistent and fluent and, in a team like Arsenal for whom protection of the ball is the key strut of their defensive strategy, his capacity to find space and play simple passes is vital. Even in terms of more overt defending, Rosicky contributes more than his reputation and slight physique may suggest is likely. Last season, when he often played in a deeper role, he averaged 0.9 tackles and 0.6 interceptions per game – as well as making an incongruous 1.1 fouls per game and collecting a total of eight bookings.
With Rosicky there is always a slight sense of sadness, the question of what might have been if it hadn’t been for the injuries always hanging over him, but the evidence of Sunday was that he still has more to give. At 34, it’s probably unrealistic to expect him to play regularly, but there are perhaps still some reserves left in the tank.
Can Rosicky play a key role for Arsenal between now and the end of the season? Let us know in the comments.