Arsenal’s 5-2 league win over Reading in mid-week saw the club’s fans vary between confidently proclaiming that this was the return of Arsene Wenger side, to moments after the hosts grabbed two goals back in quick succession, that they were always destined to capitulate in such a fashion while the Frenchman remained as boss – as is often the case, the truth is somewhere in between, but in a game which saw the 28-year-old Spaniard bag a hat-trick, it further home that he may be best used further forward, breaking up the Spanglish triumvirate alongside Jack Wilshere and Mikel Arteta in midfield for the benefit of the rest of the team in the process.
The Spain international has been in sparkling form for the most part this season and has seven goal and four assists to his name in 17 league outings since moving to the club from La Liga side Malaga in the summer. His hat-trick against Brian McDermott’s hapless and rather hopeless side saw him become just the third Spanish player to ever register a Premier League treble alongside Fernando Torres and Jordi Gomez.
A few more stats to bring you which I hope illuminate what is already a fairly obvious point about what a great player the diminutive playmaker is: Cazorla creates on average 2.8 chances per game for the side, with only Manchester City’s David Silva creating more with 3.0. He has completed 45 successful dribbles this season, the third most in the league behind only Luis Suarez and Hatem Ben Arfa with 45 and in his previous 12 league games he had just one assist to his name. This all adds up to the feeling that he could be better used further up the pitch.
I’ve argued before the need for the club to properly replace the physical presence of Alex Song in midfield, even if he wasn’t quite the traditional holding man that the side has craved for, with West Ham’s Mohamed Diame a prime candidate given his top flight experience and availability due to a £4m release clause in his contract at Upton Park.
This Arsenal side is still worryingly easy to play in and around and while their five goals against Reading was the much-needed response after the humiliation of the Bradford result, that two quick goals from the hosts left so many Gunners fans feeling uneasy at the time about another comeback reminiscent of the Newcastle game last term, spoke volumes about the soft underbelly that the side possess, stemming from a lack of fight in midfield.
With perhaps only Swansea’s Michu settling into English football in a more noticeable fashion than Cazorla so far this campaign, would it not make sense to free him of any sort of defensive responsibility further back, set him free of any shackles and go forward and do the sort of damage the aforementioned statistics clearly show he is capable of producing. David Silva isn’t burdened by any need to track back in Roberto Mancini’s side, so it seems odd that Wenger wants to see him sit so deeply.
Of course, the counter-argument to this is that by sitting deeper, Cazorla has more space in front of him to attack and a central midfield player who can drift past a man or beat him at pace is an unheard of quality, with only really Tottenham’s Moussa Dembele springing to mind. Shifting him further forward, though, would have a knock-on effect in that it would allow Arteta to return to that dictating role in front of the back four more than the defensive shield he’s been asked to perform this term, while granting Jack Wilshere more room>
With the ball, the trio of Wilshere, Cazorla and Arteta are very good, but it’s without it that the problem comes in. The former Villarreal midfielder is comfortable on either flank and is a livewire with the ball at his feet in terms of his dribbling ability and how he can beat a man on either his outside or inside with his trickery. In a central position, he’s capable of spraying the ball out wide and keeping things ticking over with short, accurate passes to the tune of an 88% pass completion rate this season, but you sense that he’s become somewhat restricted by his deeper-lying role.
It’s worth remembering that in his first full season for the club that Wenger deployed Wilshere as, ostensibly, a defensive midfielder and along with Song was tasked with anchoring the Arsenal midfield while Cesc was given more licence to roam forward sort of how Cazorla is now. Nevertheless, the 20-year-old, having started out as much on the wing as in the middle, has alwyas had attacking instincts which have needed curbing, with the 63-year-old boss attempting to mould him into a more rounded player.
Wenger stated at the time: “In our midfield he plays everywhere, he can play in any position because he is tactically intelligent. He can defend and he can attack, he’s a midfielder. For me a midfielder is not exclusively one position. He is a guy who defends when the team does not have the ball and attacks when we have the ball.” So far, so good, right? Except that as his red card against Manchester United displayed, Wilshere since his return, obviously in the absence of Song and alongside the much smaller Arteta appears to have taken it upon himself to try and play and depressingly act as the ‘hard man’.
By moving Cazorla into a more advanced position, either on the flank or behind the lone striker, as opposed to a clearly defined central midfield player, it could possess the key to unlocking the attacking potential of the rest of this Arsenal side. They are only two points off fourth place at the moment and with the club unlikely to go mad in January, tinkering from within and utilising what they already have is going to be the best policy. The Spaniard has been mightily impressive so far, but a slight but important positional shift could do wonders for those around him too, namely Arteta and Wilshere.