When a footballer is described as ‘versatile’, it generally means he can perform competently in a variety of roles.
In one sense, Santi Cazorla is a highly-versatile player. Whether fielded in the centre, on the left or on the right, he has demonstrated outstanding consistency, regardless of his starting position. In another sense, Cazorla transcends the concept of versatility. He doesn’t actually adapt his game to suit the various positions - his style of play doesn’t alter, his type of passing barely changes.
He is right-footed but when you watch him play, you don’t know. I don’t remember anyone else I have worked with who was as two-footedArsène Wenger
Switch Cazorla’s position, and he’s not playing a different role, he’s simply playing his natural game in a slightly different zone. Some attacking midfielders - Arjen Robben or Gareth Bale, for instance - can play in various positions, but their dependence upon one foot means their style of play changes completely. Cazorla is the opposite; he’s wonderfully ambidextrous and it takes a considerable period of time to deduce which foot he prefers. “He is right-footed but when you watch him play, you don’t know,” says Arsène Wenger. “I don’t remember anyone else I have worked with who was as two-footed.”
Therefore Cazorla’s characteristics are consistent, regardless of where he’s deployed. After all, rather than being primarily a shooter, Cazorla is a creative player. For Arsenal, he has played a dual role - he drops into midfield to provide an extra passing option, and also plays a succession of dangerous through balls into attack. He can receive the ball on either foot, skip away from challenges in either direction, and slip the ball through the defence, regardless of the angle of the pass.
He played more passes into the final third than any other player in the Premier League in 2012/13, and played 30 successful through balls - no-one else managed more than 17.
The Spaniard actually played two completely different positions over the course of his debut Arsenal campaign. For the first 21 games of the season, he was fielded in a central attacking position in Arsenal’s 4-2-3-1 formation.
He was man of the match on debut against Sunderland, and also the outstanding performer in Arsenal’s first victory of the season, away at Liverpool. He collected a goal and an assist at Anfield, thriving in his central position. “That’s where the manager played me, as a second striker, with the freedom that I like to have,” Cazorla says. “It’s a position I really like, not one I’ve played in much in recent years, but I will play there without problems.”
The new year brought a new role for Cazorla. In January’s 1-0 FA Cup replay victory over Swansea, he was moved to the left, as Jack Wilshere played at the top of the midfield triangle, from where he scored the game’s only goal. Wilshere’s second half of the campaign was hit by fitness problems, but with Tomas Rosicky returning to the side in that central position, Cazorla played 13 of the final 16 games out on the left.
The highlight of his spell in this role was the final home match of the season, a 4-1 victory over Wigan when, amazingly, he created all four goals. “He seems to be comfortable when he plays off the left," said his midfield colleague, Mikel Arteta, following Cazorla’s two goals against Aston Villa from the wider role. “He’s got a lot of freedom, and he causes problems to the other teams because we can use the extra man in midfield.”
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Interestingly, in both Cazorla’s description of his central role, and Arteta’s perspective on his compatriot’s play from the left, the same word features: freedom. Cazorla thrives when given license to drift across the pitch as he pleases, scampering into various zones to find angles for dangerous passes. So which role does he actually prefer?
“Well, as long as I have freedom, I don’t mind,” he says. There’s that word again. “It’s not a question of playing wide… I like to get involved in the middle, to receive the ball and the boss lets me do it. So because of that it doesn’t matter whether I’m positioned on the wing or in the centre.”
That’s the best way of putting it - not simply ‘I don’t mind’, but also ‘it doesn’t matter’. Cazorla plays the same way, regardless of his position.Copyright 2017 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source