The Cazorla conundrum


He arrived on 7 August 2012 amidst little fanfare and at a very affordable fee of around £10 million (the official fee is undisclosed), considerably little in the modern era. This was in the same window as Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud. At that time, many saw Mikel Arteta as the man to fill shoes of Cesc Fabregas, who had departed a year earlier. But as the former Evertonian aged, he withdrew to a deeper position, leaving the relatively unheralded Santiago Cazorla González as the gunners’ main creator, pplaying in his favoured position behind the striker. But of course, even as the team leant heavily on the Spaniard, Robin van Persie’s departure was a big blow, and Arsenal trundled through 2 mediocre seasons of 4th place finishes. It seemed, at that time, that the creative burden was too much for Cazorla to carry, something which Arsene Wenger certainly recognised.

Enter then, Mesut Özil. The German, Arsenal’s record signing arrived from Real Madrid following those 2 disappointing seasons. He immediately made the no. 10/CAM position, shunting Cazorla out wide, where he spent about half a season. Of course, Monsieur recognised that Santi was simply too good to leave out of the team, and at the same time, his age, style and lack of pace meant he wasn’t quite suited to play on the wing, despite doing a good job when he was there. Since then, Cazorla has undergone an Arteta-like metamorphosis, withdrawing into a deeper midfield role.

And this is where we find him in the present day. Having excelled there in the past 2 seasons, Cazorla now comfortably owns one-half of the central midfield duo which Arsene Wenger favours, spraying long passes from deep and wiggling his way out of tight situations. And he is, or should I say was, in mighty good form, becoming an integral cog in Arsenal’s midfield machine. Equally natural with either foot, on top of his stellar performances,  Santi was was a real joy to watch

However, the Spaniard picked up an injury in the 6-o win over Ludogorets and has travelled to Barcelona to be treated by Roman Cugat. This is a sign he will be out for a while. And for me, this is a huge problem. Wenger now has to choose who to play there in place of him. Elneny has done the deed for the past 2 games, doing an OK job, but nowhere close to Santi’s level. This creates a dilemma for the manager, who is the man to play in the so-called “no. 8” spot?

The current player on the books most similar in style (if not substance) is Jack Wilshere, but he’s hundreds of miles away in Bournemouth. After a couple of games, it doesn’t look as if anyone has stamped (no Xhaka, please don’t take it literally) his authority on the central midfield position, so let’s look at the candidates to fill his shoes.There are those currently playing there, those waiting in the wings and I also threw in a few punts from left-field.

Francis Coquelin
He’s definitely not a direct replacement for Cazorla, but I included him here because he too is fighting for his place in the starting 11. I know it, you know it, my grandmother knows it, Francis Coquelin isn’t the type of player who’s going to get you goals. Instead, the combative Frenchman serves as the perfect foil for the Cazorla-type player, screening the back line and breaking up attacks while his midfield partner rampaged forward.

Granit Xhaka
While Xhaka no doubt has the passing range to rival Cazorla, I tend to see the Swiss international as someone who is slower on the ball and likes to take his time to spray long passes. Furthermore, he tends to sit a little bit deeper than the Spaniard, springing attacks from close to the halfway line rather than threading little passes around the box. Furthermore, he is willing to take on a long shot once in a while, an asset that works in his favour. Probably the favourite to replace Santi Cazorla as deep-lying playmaker-in-chief. However, if he plays, mobility will have to be sacrificed for a bit more aerial presence.

Mohamed Elneny
The Egyptian has featured there for the past 2 games, partnering Coquelin in the centre of midfield. Even though he has put in a decent shift, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Arsenal has stumbled to two consecutive draws, albeit against challenging opponents. While Elneny is tidy on the ball, he is what I like to term a “tick-tock” player, someone who has good rhythm in his passing. but lacks that little extra ability to stamp their authority on the game or engineer an opening out of nothing.  In fact, Elneny plays a little bit like Arteta, having fantastic short passing, but not the technical wherewithal to subjugate a match. While he will always have consistently high passing rates, don’t expect something magical from the Egyptian too often (that Barcelona goal though).

Aaron Ramsey
The Welshman is an interesting case. As should be obvious after watching numerous Wales’ games, his favoure position is the attacking midfield role, where he can make devastating runs into the box and score late goals. However, that role is wholly owned by one Mesut Özil. Hence, he is unlikely to get a runout there unless injuries rule the German out. nothing. The chances of him playing there are low. This gives him 2 options, out wide, or deeper in midfield. He did play well on the right wing 2 seasons ago, complementing Alexis Sanchez on the other side by providing added security in midfield, a wide midfielder, if you like. However, his preferred role is still through the centre. But, Ramsey isn’t a ball-playing midfielder per se, but is more of the box-to-box type player, rampaging forward and tracking back. While his work rates cannot be faulted, I don’t think his passing is good enough to operate in the no. 8 role, especially given Arsenal’s passing style. Another dilemma for Wenger, surely.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
At the beginning of the year, Arsene Wenger tipped the Ox for a role in the centre of midfield, citing his ability to dribble out of tight situations, an asset he shares with Cazorla. While the Ox hasn’t featured there yet bar a few substitute appearances in the late stages of the game, he does look like he has the attributes to excel there. He has the pace to track back, as well as the physique to win challenges in the middle of the park, something which Theo Walcott, for example, would not have. Furthermore, he is good on the ball and probably would be proficient at playing passes. However, given that the Ox has never really played in central midfield before, and showed in the recent game how devastating he can be on the wing, it is very very unlikely that Wenger considers him an option.

Admittedly, it will be a gargantuan task for anyone to fill the gaping hole that Santa’s absence leaves behind. However, the hope is that Wenger selects a replacement who can perform the function to a level which wins us games. Should he succeed, it will be testament to the depth of the squad this season, and I dare say, will be a significant achievement which may very well propel us to the title.

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