Injuries have claimed the peak years of many great players. Physical troubles have snatched the potential of some dazzling youngsters. They are part of football, with certain players proving almost indestructible despite the miles they clock up over the course of many seasons. It is a sad reality that a lot of players have to cope with lengthy lay-offs at one time or another, but it is one football clubs have to cope with.
Some clubs, however, find this harder than others. Brendan Rodgers became overly reliant on the regularly absent Daniel Sturridge at Liverpool, Manchester City had periods of dependency on Sergio Aguero and Vincent Kompany despite their niggling troubles and now Arsenal are suffering due to the loss, once again, of Santi Cazorla.
Cazorla has been one of the Premier League’s most underrated players while in North London. Capable of spreading play from a deep midfield role or playing as a number 10 – as he often did earlier in his career – Cazorla is a technically gifted wonder in the middle third with his talent visible from both feet. A joy to watch so often, the Spaniard has become the lynchpin as the initial creator for Arsenal in midfield.
This role grew out of the struggles to find a complete deep-lying midfielder, with Granit Xhaka now tasked with filling that role. Xhaka is a playmaker by trade and offers passing range that they have lacked in Cazorla’s absence. Despite Xhaka’s arrival, though, the ex-Malaga man is sorely missed in the heart of the pitch by Arsenal. Too often too slow in the build-up and with often ineffective passing from the pivot players, it has led to Mesut Ozil dropping deeper and a lack of attacking potency.
Francis Coquelin, Aaron Ramsey and Mohamed Elneny have their respective merits, but none can make Arsenal tick in possession quite like Cazorla. An artist who despite his stature survives in the physical world of the Premier League midfield, Cazorla has vision and the superb ability to carry out the passes he sees. Line-breaking balls to Mesut Ozil or Alexis Sanchez between the lines are rarely played when Cazorla is not available, but they are no more than bread and butter for the Spanish international.
Since the start of 2015/16, Cazorla has started a measly 22 Premier League matches. As key as he can be for Arsenal and as good as they are with him in the side, they must find either a direct alternative for him or a different way to set up. Xhaka is still finding his way, but will undoubtedly improve, leaving Arsenal with an empty space in midfield. Ramsey could have provided the energy and attacking instincts, but his defensive naivety and poor form this season even brings his future at the club into question.
Since he last featured in the 6-0 drubbing of Ludogorets back in October, there has often been a Cazorla-esque hole in the Arsenal side. Without his guile the attack has lacked fluidity and it has been a key factor in yet another collapse for the Gunners. This dependency on a player seldom available must stop for Arsenal, though. This summer could be a tough goodbye to one of the best players to watch in the Premier League.