Pundits often tell us that competition for places is healthy as it forces everyone to raise their games - and Arsenal’s last few matches are a fine example.
While Arsenal fans eagerly anticipated the return of Aaron Ramsey, last season’s Player of the Year, and Mesut Ozil, the club’s record signing, two other midfielders stole the show. Santi Cazorla and Tomas Rosicky turned in absolutely outstanding performances against Manchester City and Brighton & Hove Albion respectively, guiding Arsenal to two crucial away victories.
Cazorla has been in outstanding form for a couple of months. The Spanish playmaker has impressed with his flexibility, often playing deeper than usual in a 4-3-3 and helping to control the game in midfield, as well as providing key contributions in the final third.
That was his role against Manchester City, and it was particularly notable how useful Cazorla was in terms of defending. This isn’t his natural game, but Cazorla is a feisty player as well as a creative one, and in a game where Arsenal played more reactively than usual and enjoyed just 35 per ent of possession - and with inexperienced Francis Coquelin in front of the back four - it was vital.
Therefore, it was interesting to see Cazorla make three interceptions, two tackles and and one block in front of the defence (Fig 1).
Cazorla is primarily in the side for his creative ability, and he adjusted perfectly to the unusual demands of this game. Whenever Arsenal won possession, Cazorla was the man to prompt quick attacking transitions, dribbling forward dangerously and beating opponents repeatedly just inside his own half, before playing an intelligent forward pass into attack (Fig 2).
His distribution, too, was excellent. He created Olivier Giroud’s crucial second goal with a clever, inswinging free-kick that left the Frenchman with a simple task but his passing in open play was even better.
Only five times did he misplace a pass, which was particularly notable on a day when other Arsenal players often misplaced passes on counter-attacks. He played penetrative balls when needed, and retained possession reliably too. Tackling, dribbling, passing - it was the complete midfield performance (Fig 3).
Rosicky’s display against Brighton was different. Here, Arsenal were in control, dominating possession for almost the entire game. The Czech midfielder was also playing in a different role, on the left of a 4-2-3-1. Nevertheless, it was another outstanding display.
Rosicky’s performance was all about flair. It’s unusual to see a player so obviously enjoying himself in a top-level football match: there were backheels inside his own half, passes with extravagant backspin, and a succession of superb no-look passes which wrongfooted opponents and teed up team-mates.
The most obvious example of the latter was seconds before his brilliant volleyed goal, although his best pass of the game was his pinpoint through ball which allowed Ozil to make it 2-0.
Rosicky’s heatmap shows the positional freedom he was afforded with Arsenal dominating possession. He was notionally a left-sided midfielder but was always drifting into pockets of space either side of Brighton’s two central midfielders.
Like Cazorla, Rosicky is such a useful player because he’s naturally creative, but also good at scrapping. Arsenal fans have become fond of his dramatic slide tackles - like many of his passes, there’s something enjoyable about the way he consistently slides across the wet pitch in a somewhat exaggerated fashion. Defensive contributions from attack-minded players have been particularly important this season, as the Gunners have often defended in an extremely compact manner.
Cazorla and Rosicky are, however, natural creators at heart. With Ozil and Ramsey fit again, plus Jack Wilshere and Mikel Arteta still to return, rarely has Arsene Wenger had such a wealth of creative options in his midfield. This will be vital considering Arsenal are still competing on three fronts.
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