Every team has an engine, the integral player(s) in midfield that instigates the attack and performs defensive duties. The midfield positions are perhaps the most important on a football field for the purposes of fluency, control of possession, and invariably, control of the game. Some leading lights that come to mind are Luka Modrić, and Toni Kroos for Real Madrid, Ivan Rakitić, Xavi Hernández, and Andres Iniesta for Barcelona, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Arturo Vidal, and Xabi Alonso for Bayern Munich, Juventus and Liverpool, and to turn the clock back even further, Paul Scholes, Steven Gerrard, and Andrea Pirlo.
Their methods and style vary, but the end result was similar. Measuring just how good these players are will come soon as they did for strikers, forwards and attacking midfielders, but also important is how their inclusion in a line-up influences key performance metrics. Arsenal have what is their most strength in depth at this position for years. However, a certain 65-inch-tall Spaniard has fallen to serious injury for the second season running. What does history tell us about the Gunners’ chances for a frustratingly elusive Premier league title this season?
To gain an appreciation of the influence Santiago Cazorla González has had from the box-to-box/deep lying playmaker role he has made his own, an understanding has to be gained from a season to season perspective.
During the 2014/15 season, Arsenal used various combinations of midfielders from Aaron Ramsey, Mathieu Flamini, Jack Wilshere, Tomáš Rosický, and Mikel Arteta with muted success. It was clear that finding a trusted partnership was proving difficult. Cazorla was at the time being used predominantly as the number 10 in the absence of an injured Mesut Özil. Whilst still providing assists, the Spaniard clearly lost the bite in his shots. Goals and assists were sporadic before week 15. Özil was originally ushered in upon his return on the left wing in Alexis Sánchez’s absence. When all the big names were fit and ready Cazorla looked to be the odd man out, something that seemed unthinkable in his first season in London. Still, manager Arsène Wenger had plans that would see the little magician solve the midfield problem alongside a surprisingly effective Francis Coquelin, a man who was playing with the under-21s earlier in the season and faced the ignominy of being loaned to Championship team Charlton Athletic in November 2014 .
Together they formed the best midfield partnership across the league that season as Arsenal picked up 30 points in their 13 games together, cementing a comfortable 3rd place finish for the club. It was clear that the steel provided by Coquelin was the perfect foil for the creative talents Santi could bring. Both were defensively refreshing with the Spaniard proving to be a good tackler. Cazorla’s impact wasn’t felt until he was teamed with Coquelin and moved into the deeper role, one reprised from his stint at Málaga.
The new season brought a new dynamic and it’s borne out in the statistics. Coquelin’s limitations were somewhat exposed and with Santi’s knee injured for greater parts of the season there was a glaring need for someone to be Santi. There was no one who could be that man. Mathieu Flamini was too similar to Coquelin and Flamini/Ramsey as a duo was functional but lacking the quality of the near elite passer that was lost to injury. Cazorla went down in week 14 with Arsenal having gained 27 points. Cover was bought in the form of Mohamed Elneny and for the remainder of the season there were combinations of Ramsey/Coquelin, Elneny/Coquelin, and Ramsey/Elneny. Statistically, the inclusions of Coquelin and Elneny had negligible impacts on Arsenal’s results although Coquelin again meant more goals scored and less conceded and Ramsey again had a negative impact on goal difference and points. The remaining 24 games brought only 44 points. Obviously identifying the need for another top-quality player, Granit Xhaka was brought in to begin 2016/17. After initial reluctance on Wenger’s part to start the Swiss star, Xhaka has settled into the good run of form enjoyed by the London club.
Santi is injured again. Recent history says that things go south for Arsenal without his presence in midfield (and Ramsey’s presence in the line-up). However, Xhaka is now part of the equation, some games removed from when Coquelin and Cazorla picked up where they left off in the latter stages of the 2014/15 season. There are two serious contenders to partner Xhaka, none of which come close to the individual impacts of Cazorla and the Swiss captain. They have started together on only four occasions – bringing 10 points – and together represent the best partnership to represent the club. Cazorla has had such an undeniable impact on the functioning of Arsenal’s midfield; a true catalyst.
Santi is one of those players that you take for granted when he’s there, but miss sorely when he’s not there, like electricity. The little magician will be missed, all 5’5 of him but with Sánchez providing his own electrical charge further up the pitch and Xhaka settling in well, history may very well be thrown aside.