It’s been said before but I feel compelled to state it once again – Arsenal’s Santi Cazorla is not a winger.
Returning to more central capacities has been the source of the cheeky-faced Spaniard’s incredible form in recent weeks, tipped by a Man of the Match performance against Manchester City last weekend, and in total he’s found five goals and five assists when deployed as a No.10 or in deeper midfield this season, compared to just the solitary set-up from his seven incredibly forgettable appearances on the left wing.
Central roles embellish the 30 year-old’s predominant strengths as a footballer, particularly his mixed-range passing game, ambipedal feet and technical mastery in tight spaces, whilst the comparatively floundering displays out wide highlight his inevitable limits – a lack of penetrative pace and power and a naturally persistent desire to cut inside, often rendering Kieran Gibbs and Nacho Monreal too easily exposed and creating a typical ‘too many cooks trying to walk the broth into the saucepan’ Arsenal scenario. Compare his style and traits to Alexis Sanchez, Theo Walcott or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s for example, attacking players far more comfortable hugging touchlines and beating full-backs on their outside, and the differences become increasingly clear.
So to get best use out of Cazorla, arguably Arsenal’s most in-form player at this exact moment, he needs to be in a central, preferably attacking, role. Big whoop, it’s been happening for the last three months – where’s the problem there?
Well, my concern is a simple one. What does Cazorla’s recent form mean for Arsenal’s club record signing, Mesut Ozil? An equally effective, or arguably superior, No.10, that cost the Gunners an incredible £42.2million?
The 2014 World Cup winner shares Cazorla’s incompatibility with wider roles, void in the speed and strength required, and resultantly proved hugely ineffective on the wing at the start of the season. Rather tellingly, his only goal and only assist of the campaign thus far came during his solitary selection in central attacking midfield, the position that served him so well at Real Madrid and with German national team, from a total of seven Premier League outings.
It’s the 26 year-old’s absence through injury since October, combined with the superfluous form of Sanchez and Chamberlain, that’s inspired Cazorla’s recent renaissance at No.10, with a catalogue of fitness problems throughout the squad forcing Arsene Wenger’s hand. Whether by coincidence or design however, the Spain international’s importance to Arsenal has arguably hit it’s maxim this season; Wenger claims Cazorla’s amid the best form of his entire career and logic suggests the Gunners should continue to take advantage – especially amid a campaign in which their 18-year Champions League status has come under serious threat from Southampton.
But Ozil made the bench for the 2-0 win at Manchester City and, although he’ll likely be spared for Arsenal’s trip to Brighton on Sunday, will expect to be included in Arsenal’s starting line-up as soon as his body allows. He is considered to be one of the finest No.10s in world football, after all. He is the most expensive signing in Arsenal’s entire history, after all. He is, or at least should be, the undisputed star of the show, after all. Why else did Wenger spend £42.2million on him, if not to play Ozil in his most effective position? Furthermore, getting the German international as close to Sanchez as possible, allowing Arsenal’s two leading and most expensive talents to operate frequently in attacking tandem, seems like a naturally obvious strategy.
The prevailing dilemma however, is deciding whose qualities should be sacrificed for the sake of the team, or perhaps even more troublingly, deciding whether or not Cazorla and Ozil can even coexist in the same midfield.We saw at the Etihad the positive effects dynamic pace in wide positions can have on Arsenal, and in theory, Ozil and Cazorla are the ideal candidates to provide those cutting passes to Sanchez, Chamberlain or Walcott. Having Cazorla or Ozil on one flank however, will leave only one avenue of forward pass available to the No.10. Suddenly, the whole functionality of Arsenal’s starting Xi, especially when attempting to move the ball swiftly and directly, comes into jeopardy.
Potentially, the Spaniard could be moved behind the German, having recorded two tackles, three interceptions, one block, two key passes and ten (yes, an incredible ten) successful dribbles as a central midfielder against Manchester City. But that would throw the balance of the entire engine room out of kilter, through lack of a recognised defensive element, and having enough attack-minded players on the pitch has never been Arsenal’s problem – in fact, quite the opposite.
With Arsenal’s schedule set to be overloaded with league, European and cup fixtures in the coming weeks, there is the opportunity for rotation, especially with Ozil still some way off full match fitness. But in the long-term, it’s impossible for Arsenal to get full value from both players – inevitably, a choice will have to be made.
And although Cazorla’s form right now is amongst the best of any Premier League midfielder, he’s unfortunately the more expendable of the two, aged 30 and without a club record transfer fee lingering over his head – those who don’t believe price-tags and reputations influence selection policies, even at a club as big as Arsenal, are worryingly naive.
Fresh from that heroic performance against Manchester City however, Cazorla’s role as Arsenal’s No.10 remains safe for now.