Santi Cazorla, which will have gone a long way to helping the club keep their hopes of clinching a top four place alive after a terrible week which saw them all but crash out of two cup competitions, but should he be contributing in such a fashion on a much more consistent basis?
Back-to-back defeats saw the Gunners crash out of the FA Cup to Blackburn at home despite dominating the game and lose in midweek to Bayern Munich 3-1 in the Champions League which puts their chances of qualification for the next round in some serious doubt, so in terms of maintaining their fragile confidence during a pivotal time as they chase a top four place, even though the win was in a nervy manner, the result was more important than the performance against Paul Lambert’s relegation strugglers.
The two goals took Cazorla’s tally to a healthy 11 for the season from 27 games in the league, but as perhaps the team’s most standout performer in terms of natural talent, aside from Jack Wilshere, you are often left with the sense that he should still be doing a lot more than his six assists testify. He could best be described as more of a decorator than a dictater of play, and is he simply a consequence of his environment that requires more help for him to truly flourish?
In his 27 league outings to date this campaign, the diminutive Spaniard has created 65 chances, completed 87% of his passes and hit the target with 53% of his shots. In what can only be described as an altogether deeper-lying role than he performed while he was in Spain, firstly with Villarreal and then Malaga, not to mention the Spanish national side, Cazorla has nominally played out wide as part of a four-man midfield or as one member of a three-pronged attack from either the left or right flank, but Wenger has him sitting deeper and trying to get on the ball more and effect play.
Nevertheless, against top quality opposition this season, Cazorla has flitted in and out of games far too much for what that role demands and he can often be found playing well within himself, failing to get the tempo going to the sort required to see Arsenal at their best. This is not some youngster we are talking about either, but a 28-year-old, experienced professional with over 40 caps at international level.
It may be a somewhat casual comparison to make, simply because they are all from the same country and are seen as creative fore-bearers for their respective sides, with a heavy emphasis on them to instigate moves, but when you highlight the impact that both Juan Mata and David Silva have had in the past, Cazorla comes up short, even if in terms of natural ability he is comparable and is he simply the latest in a long line of mentally fragile big money buys from Wenger?
In his second season in England, Mata, four years Cazorla’s junior and in equally as inconsistent a side in Chelsea, has managed to create 64 chances in 25 league appearances, assisting nine goals in the league, 22 across all competitions and taking his goal return to 17 for the campaign, 10 of which have come in the league.
Meanwhile, 27-year-old Silva was absolutely integral in helping Manchester City to the league title last season and despite battling with injuries this season, and never quite getting up to full speed, symptomatic of the rest of Roberto Mancini’s side in that respect, he has still managed to create 73 chances for his team-mates in 24 games, with seven assists.
When Silva plays well, so do City and the same can be said of Mata at Chelsea but there must be a worry that Cazorla’s influence is somewhat more fleeting, even if it can still occasionally hit the same heady heights. It’s been suggested that both Silva and Mata are capable of making the step up in the future to one of the big two in Spain, Barcelona and Real Madrid, whereas when Cazorla was available in the summer, neither really pursued his signature, despite his outstanding season at Malaga, which speaks volumes of the standing he is held in and he noticeably dropped off in form and struggled after the international break earlier on in the season.
Alongside his double against Villa, his winner against Sunderland showed that Cazorla is starting to understand the responsibility he must take on within the side. They are under increasing pressure to secure that top four place for a 17th successive season or run the risk undoing all of their progress off the pitch by being unable to compete for the best players in the summer when Financial Fair Play is introduced from their platform of the Europa League. It is absolutely pivotal for their long-term plan that they make fourth this term.
From a purely statistical standpoint, Cazorla has had an exceptional first season in the Premier League, but as one of the senior heads of the side, he needs to maintain his undoubted influence across the ninety minutes, particularly in games of importance, because when he does get himself more involved, he is a match-winner and he can’t let himself, like so many of his team-mates, wilt under the pressure. It may be demanding to ask more of a clearly excellent player, but he has an extra gear, the sort that neither summer signings Olivier Giroud and Lukas Podolski possess, and the technical ability to win games on his own, which he is finally starting to show, albeit intermittently.
As he adapts more to the demands of the top flight, the fans in turn need to demand more of a player capable of becoming their talisman. Wenger may be best served pushing him further forward so that he can do more damage in the final third as the season goes down to the wire, but the extent to which he maintains his form will determine, perhaps more than any other individual player in the Arsenal squad, whether they are ultimately successful in their quest for a top four spot this season.