Santi Cazorla flourishing in withdrawn central midfield role for Arsenal
It was a moment that required remarkable vision, but was impressively made look so thoroughly routine. By the 26th minute of Arsenal’s FA Cup tie at home to Middlesbrough, the Championship side were seemingly living up to all the praise they had received in the build-up to the game, because they were very cleverly making it very congested around their box.
The home team were just struggling to find a way through, and weren’t creating all that much. Every time Arsenal tried to go forward, they had to go back.
It was just as well that, sitting in that withdrawn central position, they had precisely the player with the vision required. With a gloriously languid movement, Santi Cazorla opened up space where it all seemed closed off, and Kieran Gibbs was released to square for Olivier Giroud.
It was 1-0, from one perfect pass.
It’s also now possible that Arsenal may have stumbled upon their perfect central midfielder. That divine ball was just one of many actions in which Cazorla exerted control over Arsenal’s game, but also drove it forward. This was no sterile possession as with Mikel Arteta, nor did it involve sudden strides forward that break the side’s fluency, so conspicuous with Jack Wilshere. The Spaniard links it all together so well.
It is a reflection of his form that, after Arsenal’s 2-0 win, Arsene Wenger was asked whether Cazorla was the club’s player of the season. The Arsenal manager has never been all that enamoured with questions about individual awards, and typically pointed to the collective, that he hoped all of his players aim for such recognition.
Perhaps the key with Cazorla, though, is that he has been so important to making the rest play better. He has offered the platform. It is all the more impressive because, at the start of the season, it looked as though all those other attackers would see him sidelined.
With Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez fit, there was apparently no obvious place in the best XI for Cazorla, at least in the creative positions. It has even been suggested by some at the club that Arsenal would have listened to offers.
Instead, Cazorla has offered something the side just didn’t have. Wenger, two weeks ago, praised the Spaniard’s recent transformation into the purest of central midfielders.
“For us, it was quite positive,” the Arsenal manager said. “He looked to find a new role and he is a team player, he works hard, has a good balance between attacking and defender. He is a better defender than people think he is. He loves to do the job for the team.”
That is actually putting it mildly. If Cazorla’s nine games in central midfield are enough to go by, he balances all the main demands of the position far better than basically any of the rest at Wenger’s disposal.
To begin, there’s his defensive work, which was so fearsomely displayed in the win away at Manchester City. In terms of tackles and interceptions together, none of the other central midfielders can match him - with Flamini and Coquelin overlooked owing to their defensive midfield berth. Cazorla offers the second most tackles, with 1.9 per game when playing in a withdrawn central position, with only Ramsey ahead on 2. With interceptions, it’s 1.6 from the same role, and Ramsey is again the closest, back on 1.2
It’s also not like that level of aggression and industry takes away from his play either. Cazorla actually gets on the ball much more than any of the other players to have played in central midfield at Arsenal - 63.1 passes per game from that position compared to the next closest of Arteta, with 60 - and he still provides more proactive play from there.
Cazorla hits 2 key passes per game, which is a touch more than Ramsey’s 1.6 and more than double everyone else, while also trying to dribble through much more at 3.3 a game. He even shoots more, as those drives against Middlesbrough displayed.
In short, even if it’s an incomplete sample, we’re seeing the signs of a complete central midfielder - at least in the guise Arsenal have lacked. Certainly, it would be difficult to see much vision in dropping him for any of the other central midfielders right now.