Santi Cazorla flourishes in deeper role to help Arsenal find their groove

Arsenal's Ozil, Cazorla, and Alexis Sanchez against Middlesbrough

There are times when words give the impression of being superfluous, and finding the right adjectives to describe a performance that has been so dominant, exemplary and awe-inspiring appears akin to embarking on a fool’s errand, it hardly seems worth making the effort.

The erratic showing against Leicester City was promptly put to bed here as Arsenal put in a performance of such control, class and incision as to have the Emirates faithful contentedly purring in admiration.

At the centre of everything good the Gunners did was the diminutive figure of Santi Cazorla, orchestrating and probing, setting the tempo and seemingly capable of subtly manipulating the dials of this Arsenal machine with impeccable timing and unerring precision.

In answer to the question of how to compensate for Aaron Ramsey’s absence, Arsène Wenger had opted for an unorthodox solution and chose to deploy the Spaniard in a deeper role as part of the midfield trio in a 4-2-3-1 formation. It was perhaps, something of a gamble given the way Middlesbrough had more than held their own against Manchester City’s midfield in the last round, but Cazorla, donning the Captain’s armband owing to the absences of Mertesacker and Arteta, thrived. He dictated proceedings from a deeper berth, regularly finding Özil, Sanchez and Welbeck ahead of him and providing a constant threat from corners and free-kicks. His sumptuous pass to find the marauding Kieran Gibbs, who then laid on an inch perfect pass to locate the lurking Olivier Giroud was as close to a perfect encapsulation of the vision, nous and imagination that were hallmarks of his performance, here.

Speaking of Giroud, the Frenchman turned in the sort of performance that simultaneously serves as a vindication of sorts for those who have always seen something in his strength and ability to link play, but leaves his detractors tearing their hair out as to why he does not put in similar performances every single time. One thing that cannot be disputed is the consistent improvement in his game that has been witnessed since he joined Arsenal from Montpellier in 2012. Wenger noted as much in his post-match comments saying,

“I believe that he is a different player today than the guy who arrived here for two reasons. One, he understands what top-level football demands, works with a great concentration in training and he has improved tremendously on his mobility, his technical quality and of course his body is very strong”.

Giroud’s improving work rate and new found readiness to work the channels in addition to his well known attributes of providing a physically imposing presence and interlinking play point to someone who is determined to put in the work to ensure that he becomes a top player.

In some ways the unqualified success that was the experiment of playing Santi Cazorla in this deeper role raises as many questions as it answers. Given the undoubted caveats (playing against Championship opposition, at home, e.t.c.) a note of caution with regards to reading too many meanings into what a great performance is advised. What it does indicate, though, is that a workable option to the hole created by Ramsey, may exist, at least in the interim.

The balance that was achieved with having the guile, control and vision of two creative talents in Cazorla and Özil direct proceedings from the middle whilst having the industry of Sanchez and Welbeck on the flanks is something else that should give Wenger food for thought, especially considering Cazorla’s disciplined and calm interpretation of the deeper role. Tougher examinations than this should provide a better guide as to whether this is a workable template moving forward. The early signs, however, are quite encouraging.

By
Lifelong Arsenal fan and acolyte of Cruyff, Wenger and Bielsa.
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