When Mesut Ozil picked up a knee injury in October, and was ruled out for three months, many Arsenal fans feared the worst. However, Ozil’s misfortune turned out to benefit another of Arsenal’s talented, creative footballers: Santi Cazorla has thoroughly enjoyed his spell as Arsenal’s chief playmaker.
Having made an immediate impact during his first campaign in English football, being voted Arsenal’s Player of the Season, 2013/14 was much quieter for Cazorla. He suffered an ankle injury early in the campaign and missed a series of matches, and by the time he returned, Ozil had established himself in the central role Cazorla often thrived in.
The Spaniard performed well towards the end of the campaign, collecting assists in each of his final four Premier League games, and scoring the crucial free-kick which prompted Arsenal’s famous FA Cup final comeback against Hull. Over the past couple of months, however, he’s recaptured his very best form.
The 2-0 Champions League victory over Dortmund in November seemed to kickstart Cazorla’s season. In that match, he created both goals: the first for Yaya Sanogo, the second for Alexis Sanchez. More importantly, his all-round performance was fantastic, with the Spaniard drifting across the central midfield zone and covering a huge area, regularly spraying passes out to the flank, and attempting ambitious balls into the attackers.
It was a masterful midfield display, against a team renowned for their heavy midfield pressure. Others often struggle because Dortmund show opponents onto their weaker side, but Cazorla is amongst the most two-footed players around.
“Since I was a kid I’ve had the ability to play with both feet,” Cazorla recently told FourFourTwo, the magazine which ranked him as one of the world’s top 100 players for the third consecutive year.
“The basis of this is a lot of hard work. I’ve worked on improving my left foot, and this has served me well until today and helped me play with both my weaker and stronger foot.” Opponents never know which way he’s going to turn.
Cazorla’s greatest quality, however, is the fact he’s an all-round playmaker, someone who can drop deep to wrestle control of the game, or shuttle forward to provide incisive through-balls.
In that respect, he works nicely in Arsenal’s system: he usually offers something between the patient passing of Mikel Arteta, and the direct distribution of Ozil.
When those two are both fit, Cazorla plays the link role neatly. When they are absent, however, as was the case throughout Arsenal’s tricky fixture list either side of Christmas, Cazorla really comes into his own, and becomes Arsenal’s midfield leader.
A good example was the comfortable 3-0 victory over Stoke City in January, Arsenal’s first league victory of 2015. Cazorla was the game’s most prolific passer by a huge margin, completing 83 passes – 21 clear of his nearest challenger Tomas Rosicky, who was also outstanding.
Cazorla also completed the most passes into the final third, and created three chances for teammates. This was a perfect game for him, with Arsenal taking the lead early, Stoke sitting surprisingly deep, and Arsenal given the run of the midfield.
Cazorla saw plenty of the ball, and was determined to help Arsenal keep attacking. Before that match, Cazorla received Arsenal’s Player of the Month award for December, having polled 53 per cent of the vote ahead of Alexis Sanchez, the winner for the previous three months.
It was a well-deserved honour, considering Cazorla was Arsenal’s standout player in the December victories over Newcastle and West Ham, scoring twice against the former, and once against the latter. He was also impressive in the 2-2 draw at Anfield in an otherwise poor Arsenal performance, being commended by Arse?ne Wenger as “one of the players who turned up”.
Other players in Cazorla’s mould only shine when his team are dominating, but Cazorla is capable of lifting a struggling side too. Arsenal’s next quest is to get Cazorla and zil, their two star playmakers, shining together.
There’s absolutely no reason it can’t happen: both are selfless team players and highly versatile, capable of playing on the left, the right or through the middle. Once those two click, Arsenal’s attacking play might reach another level in the second half of this season.
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