Santi Cazorla - The big, short Spaniard, sorely missed by Arsenal
On November 29, 2015, Arsenal lost two points to Norwich. Winning three points would have seen them climb to second spot but that was not the biggest setback of the day. A knee injury to Santi Cazorla, exactly a week after an injury to Coquelin would have an effect on the remainder of the season.
The Cazorla-Coquelin axis, which had been so successful, was one of the main reasons for the Gunners’ good form. The loss of the pair is one of the biggest concerns as the Gunners try to claim their first Premier League title in 12 years.
Ozil suffers as well
Arsenal, being Arsenal, always try to pass out from the back, the outlet primarily being Cazorla. It was the diminutive Spaniard that started out attacks from his deeper role. His plays and passes were such that Ozil and Sanchez would receive the ball in the final third where they could have maximum impact.
In Santi’s absence, this transition to the star duo is affected. Flamini is more of a destroyer and Ramsey is usually more advanced which makes it less likely for him to receive the pass from the centre-backs. Subsequently, Ozil drops deep to start proceedings more which diminishes his impact. The German, previous to Cazorla’s injury had 11 assists from 13 matches whereas has just had five assists from 11 matches following the injury.
The opposition are better prepared to play against the Gunners (primarily by defending narrow and conceding the wide areas and waiting to hit on the counter). Teams usually counter either from the deep or they employ the high press.
When the opposition breaks from deep, the shielding midfielder forms the first line of defence. One of the central midfielders needs to stay close and press the ball carrier so as to prevent him from freely making the probing pass (Nemanja Matic at Chelsea last season was really good in this role).
Mobility, positioning and the ability to read the game are of utmost priority for this position as most teams move from one part of the pitch to another in less than 5 seconds.
When the opposition employs the second tactic (pressing higher up the pitch), your defence either should clear its lines or have a player with the ability to retain possession and pass/dribble his way through as he is usually targeted by more than two persons. A good first touch, close control dribbling, the ability to use either foot combined with some trickery are all needed here.
Yin and Yang
When Arsenal were in their best form, Wenger had just the exact combination of the above said skills in the centre of the park. Coquelin negated the counter from deep and Cazorla evaded the high-press. The pair, though not exactly perfect individually, supplemented each other really well laying a basic foundation for the front four to cause havoc.
The current pair of Dembele-Dier at Spurs, Motta-Veratti at PSG are other such pairs. The reason why Busquets is so sought after is because he combines both the above qualities. In the pairs’ absence, the Gunners have been typically exploited by both the counter tactics.
Two examples of Arsenal missing the pair, watch Per’s red card against Chelsea. The blues break from deep (Tactic 1) and Flamini instead of staying close to Willian retreats, allows him the space to run and make the pass to Costa eventually leading to the red card. Coquelin never drops off when he needs to press and with him nearing full fitness, we could probably prevent such scenarios in the future. Against Liverpool in the crazy 3-3, the first two goals were borne out of the high press (Tactic 2).
Santi usually is the go-to guy to avoid the high-press. His quality was for all to see earlier in 2015 against Manchester City. At Etihad, in the dying moments he picked the ball up near the penalty box and drove forward evading tackles and leaving players behind.
Rambo the answer
As the Spanish magician is out for a longer period, Ramsey has asked been allowed to play in his favoured central role.
But despite his best efforts he is prone to losing the ball when exposed to the high press (one reason why Wenger prefers him wide). Though he is a fantastic footballer, this specific skill is one he lacks in his repertoire. The Welshman is more of an attacking box to box midfielder. I still feel his best position is in the centre, but not in the current formation especially against the top teams. He is suited better to a 4-3-3 than to a 4-2-3-1.
But in the modern game at the top level, you need a player to get you out of those tight situations (Veratti at PSG, Modric at Madrid, Thiago at Bayern). Someone who has the capability to receive the ball with his back to goal, turn and transition forward, someone to kickstart the attacks from deep. Is Rambo that guy?
Ramsey’s ball retention has not been that good so far. Currently, Ramsey needs to develop the skill and also needs to remain disciplined defensively. This could also cost us as he has proved to be more efficient in the final third making late runs and also helping in the offensive press. Making him sit deep could shrink his offensive output.
The best possible solution is to pray Cazorla comes back quick.
Come back quickly Santi, the title seems to be slipping away.