The weekend’s Premier League fixtures saw a number of teams slip up in pursuit of Manchester City at the top of the Premier League, with results favouring Liverpool and Chelsea, who overcame West Brom and Manchester United respectively. Their victories, coupled with City, Tottenham and Arsenal drawing, mean just one point separates the top five. Many expected the current leaders to run away with the league following their blistering start to the season, but a dip in form has allowed rivals to gain ground on Pep Guardiola’s side.
After Spurs’ 0-0 draw with Bournemouth in Saturday’s early kick off, Arsenal were expected to capitalise on their slip up and steal a march in the title race. However, they too faltered, succumbing to a 0-0 home draw with Middlesbrough, despite coming into the clash as overwhelming favourites. Arsene Wenger’s side mustered just 10 shots on goal over the 90 minutes, their second lowest return in a Premier League match this season.
Granted, they were met by a steadfast Victor Valdes, determined to keep the Arsenal attack at bay – the Spaniard was ultimately awarded the man of the match award with a WhoScored rating of 8.18 – but a draw with a team that had failed to win in six in the league coming into the fixture did not sit well with the home support. The failure to secure all three points coincided with Santi Cazorla’s absence, with the Spaniard sidelined through injury. It certainly seems no coincidence that the other occasion that Arsenal managed so few shots in a game this season (vs Liverpool), Cazorla was also missing.
While the 31-year-old is unlikely to draw the headlines in a way similar to Mesut Ozil or Alexis Sanchez, Cazorla remains one of the club’s most important players. With a greater emphasis on a 4-2-3-1 formation, Cazorla re-invented himself to play at the base of the midfield as he struggled to consolidate a starting spot in his favoured number 10 role following the arrival of Ozil. Yet, with a ball winner alongside him, this grants the Spain international greater license to push forward when in possession, maximising his statistically calculated WhoScored strength of ‘dribbling’.
Indeed, of players to attempt 50 or more Premier League dribbles since the start of last season, only Mousa Dembele (91.2%) and Yaya Toure (78.4%) have a better dribble success rate than Cazorla (75.4%). This further reinforces the need for a deep lying midfielder to exploit the space in front of him, with the top six players with the best dribble success rate all central midfielders. Yet, his absence on Saturday further highlighted just how important Cazorla is for Arsenal.
Every top team requires a ‘water carrier’ in midfield, effectively a player to keep things ticking over in the middle of the park. While this position is usually reserved for a player who remains stationed in the middle of the park, it’s a role that Cazorla undertakes with aplomb. He averaged more passes per game (81.9) than any other Premier League player last season, while only Ki Sung-yueng (90.9%) had a better pass success rate than the Arsenal man (90.2%) of those to make 15 or more appearances in England’s top tier.
He’s maintained a very high standard of ball retention with an average of 70 passes per game the third most in the Premier League this season, while an improved 91.3% pass success rate is the fourth highest. Against Middlesbrough, his absence was certainly felt. While Mohamed Elneny and Francis Coquelin kept hold of the ball effectively, the pair are unlikely to burst forward in possession akin to Cazorla. With Aitor Karanka’s side remaining compact and space in the middle of the pitch at a premium, Arsenal lacked a creative spark from deep and a player to punch a hole in the Boro backline.
Opponents are aware that, without Cazorla, they can simply shut up shop and frustrate Arsenal, as was the case at the Emirates at the weekend. It’s little shock, then, that the Gunners’ Premier League win percentage without Cazorla since the beginning of last season is a disappointing 44% compared to 68.2% when he does start. All in all, Arsenal are a far more fluid and effective team when the Spaniard is in the XI and struggle to break down staunch opponents when he is unavailable.
Those in the final third will earn the adulation and praise for their impact, but without Cazorla pulling the strings in the middle of the park, Arsenal aren’t anywhere near as functional. He’s a vital cog for Wenger’s team and his absence dents their chances of Premier League success, with the Frenchman throwing weight behind his importance following Saturday’s stalemate. “Of course, you miss always Cazorla. From deep midfield into the final third, with his pass he is always quick and accurate.”
He may be averaging fewer key passes per game (1.3) this season than in any of his five Premier League campaigns for Arsenal, but this hints at a changing role for the Spain international, beginning to play the pass that leads to the chance, rather than create it himself. Either way, there's an argument to suggest Cazorla is Arsenal’s most important player as they strive to secure further domestic glory this season.
How important do you feel Cazorla is in Arsenal's pursuit of domestic glory this season? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below