Tag Archives: Cazorla

Cazorla (1)

Cazorla shows size doesn’t matter as he bosses Dinamo’s midfield

The big worry ahead of the match against Dinamo was whether Santi and Flamini could work together as a midfield duo for Arsenal. It was mooted often that Santi couldn’t boss the area without the more physical Coquelin at his side. Santi, many said, would have to be shunted off to the right and someone else brought in for him. Someone bigger. Someone more physical.

Dinamo played a physical game against Arsenal and referee Viktor Kassai let the Croatian team get away with many hard tackles that probably should have been called as fouls. Despite being a Champions League tie, and the supposed less physical nature of those matches, Dinamo kicked and pressured Arsenal throughout the match and were especially physical in the first 30 minutes, as I pointed out in my By the Numbers column.

Flamini didn’t have a bad game but he didn’t offer much for Arsenal. Flamini had 2/3 tackles (one was a spectacular sliding effort) he made 2 interceptions, and he even managed 7 ball recoveries. But it was his midfield partner who actually bossed the midfield.

Cazorla led both teams in passses with 66/73.He also kept Arsenal’s attack ticking over with 21/27 passes in the Dinamo final third. He also led all players with 9 ball recoveries (tied with Nacho), was second on the Arsenal team with 3/5 tackles, made 2 interceptions, and even led Arsenal with 2/5 headed clearances!

To be fair, those headed clearances weren’t aerial battles in the middle of the box but rather Santi attacked the ball whenever Dinamo tried a short corner. And Santi also didn’t create a single shot for a teammate, which is unusual, and he was 0/4 on corners which is also unusual.

But it was his 7/7 dribbling which was most impressive. Whenever Dinamo tried to press him with a bigger, more physical midfielder, Santi simply slithered away with the ball. It was one of those dribbles which led to Arsenal’s opening goal. Santi broke pressure, passed to Flamini, Flamini to Alexis, and Alexis to Özil. And lest you think Santi was just abusing one man, he did it on both sides of the pitch.



Watching that performance yesterday left me wondering if the real secret to Arsenal’s success over the last year wasn’t down to Coquelin and his flashy tackling, but rather down to the fact that Cazorla is nigh unstoppable. He certainly wasn’t helped much by Flamini in midfield yesterday and yet he bossed the entire midfield, front to back.

There’s a bias against small people in general in most societies. But there’s an unfounded bias against small people in football. Whenever fans call for Wenger to buy a midfielder they often ask for someone over 6′ who is built like an American linebacker. But the way Cazorla played yesterday leaves me wondering if people shouldn’t have a rethink?



Swapping Santi for Ramsey, staying home, and Coquelin: Arsenal’s New Balance

By Tim Todd, Sneakerist

I have a friend who called me up the other day and asked me to come have a drink with him. I’m not one to turn down booze and company so I agreed to meet him at the local watering hole. But before we got off the phone, and yes I did actually speak to him on the phone, he excitedly told me that he got some new shoes. “They are New Balance, I’ll wear them.”

When I got to the bar, he was already posted up on a stool, and when he saw me walk in, he let out a huge smile, then pointed to his shoes. “Do you like them?”

They were purple. I looked at him. I looked at his shoes and laughed, “no.” His response was about how I didn’t know anything about style and fashion, and I admitted that’s true. I don’t know anything about why a man would buy a pair of purple sneakers.

I never asked but I keep wondering if they were meant to be ironic. That’s the thing these days, everything is ironic do it’s hard to tell what’s ironic and what’s authentic. I see kids wearing bow ties as they bag groceries at the local Fred Meyer. The bow tie was once worn exclusively to high society events, black tie events, and now it’s worn by kids to bag groceries.

Eyeglasses are the same. When I was growing up no one wore glasses. Even the kids who couldn’t see didn’t wear glasses. These days? People who can see perfectly wear glasses. It was all the rage there for a little while for NBA players to wear fake glasses.

But here’s the thing, if you’re doing something ironically, you’re still doing that thing. And one day, you’re going to find your old Facebook account and there will be pictures of you with a Snidely Whiplash mustache, a bow tie, fake glasses, and purple New Balance sneakers and you will look at that picture and say “wow, I was so coool. What happened to me?” And then you will yell at your teenage daughter for wearing some clothes that aren’t ironic enough. “You go to your room and put on some see-through yoga pants and a Journey tee-shirt right now, young lady! No daughter of mine is going to face the world with a semblance of authenticity.”

Unlike the hipster trend of the last 15 years, Arsenal’s New Balance is authentic.It’s a shift in managerial philosophy and from there the changes are rippling down throughout the ranks.

Tomas Rosicky let the cat poke its head out of the bag a bit last week when he talking about a shift in tactics and in match preparation.

We changed some stuff slightly in our preparation for these games. We’re doing a little more tactical work and we changed some stuff against the big teams. I don’t want to go into the details but there were some adjustments and it’s paid off for us. Recently we’ve been successful against the big teams but we still have to play Chelsea and Manchester United, so we would like to carry on like that.

And in terms of the games I think you can see Arsenal’s balance reflected in the relatively stable positions that players are taking up on the pitch. This new-found positional stability is a key reason why Arsenal seem to be able to cover for their teammates better all over the pitch.

Against Burnley on Saturday, Arsenal started with Giroud up front, Özil in the #10 spot behind him, Ramsey and Alexis playing wide midfield and Cazorla and Coquelin in the central midfield role. For the full 90 minutes each player stuck to his position, more or less, and kept the team shape.

If you were new to football and you read that last sentence you might say “yeah? Isn’t that what the players are supposed to do??” And yes, that is what most teams and most managers have done for the majority of football history. But Arsene Wenger isn’t most managers and his teams in the last 10 years tend to have more fluid lineups, with lots of interchanging between left and right wings, pushing fullbacks up out of position, and other methods which seek to destabilize the opponent by playing a more improvisational, jazz-like football. But this team feels more orchestrated.

One of the key movements to Arsenal’s New Balance is that Wenger has swapped Cazorla and Ramsey, putting Cazorla centrally and shoving Ramsey out wide. It’s a counter-intuitive move. Both are central midfielders, and Ramsey excels at the link-up role which is now Cazorla’s. Meanwhile, Cazorla is used to playing in the #10 spot behind the striker and Arsenal fans are used to seeing Cazorla given a wide role when Özil is available, simply because Özil is a better #10.

But this swap pays off because Ramsey provides a little more defensive muscle wide while Cazorla provides a little bit better link-up play in the middle.

Here is Ramsey’s Dashboard (from the Statszone App) from the Burnley match:

RamseyFor the most part, Ramsey stuck to his task on the right wing. There were a few plays where him and Sanchez swapped sides but Ramsey largely stayed wide right. He also played deeper and more defensively than his counterpart on the left, Alexis:

FullSizeRender (6)As you can see by the green X’s, Alexis is still making defensive tackles, but he’s clearly playing a much more offensive role: he had 5 shots and 4 dribbles (the arrows are shots, the stars are dribbles), and almost all of his dribbles were in the opposition final third. Ramsey had just the three shots and despite his more defensive role (ironically!) scored the only goal of the game.

If there was any chink in the armor against Burnley it was that Ramsey mostly protected Hector Bellerin on his side of the pitch (there was one moment where Bellerin slipped but that was a one on one and hardly the fault of Ramsey) but because Alexis was going forward so much Nacho Monreal was attacked by the Burnley right side.

FullSizeRender (7)Burnley tend to focus their attack through their right side anyway and perhaps Wenger looked to keep the Burnley fullback, Trippier, occupied with Alexis but Burnley still got plenty of the ball down the right. All of those green X’s O’s and ^’s are Nacho Monreal being attacked mercilessly and him responding excellently. In fact, Arsenal’s clean sheet could easily be attributed to Monreal’s near-flawless defensive performance.

This is a key feature of Arsenal’s run of wins, the players stay home. During the run of 8 consecutive wins, Monreal has been chosen to start over Gibbs in each of those matches largely because he’s not as adventurous of a fullback as the Englishman. And so, if Wenger is going to play Alexis on the left, where he will look to come inside all the time, he needs a stay-home fullback behind Alexis to clean up when the opponent looks to counter. Thus, Nacho.

And finally, there’s Coquelin. Here’s his dashboard:

FullSizeRender (8)For years I have joked that Arsene Wenger doesn’t play defensive midfielders, he plays a guy who is “the most defensive midfielder on a team that doesn’t really play much defense.” But with Coquelin, Wenger has a true defensive mid. While it is true that Coquelin created two shots for his teammates (the aqua lines) and even took a shot for himself (the red arrow, it was way off target) there was a moment which illustrates his defense-first attitude.

The Burnley keeper hit a poor clearance which was collected well by Coquelin. The Frenchman drove forward with the ball and hit a hard pass to Alexis, who took a dribble, and then a shot. None of that was unusual, but what was unusual was that after Coquelin hit the pass to Alexis, he didn’t follow, he stopped running. He stopped because he knew it was his job to protect against the Burnley counter if Alexis turned the ball over or if his shot was blocked. This isn’t something I’ve come to expect from an Arsenal midfielder, to actually hold. They usually all run forward with abandon! That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but you know what I mean if you’ve watched Arsenal play over the last decade.

To my untrained eyes, it looks like it is a simple change that Arsenal have made to their game. Wenger is playing Cazorla through the middle in the role that Ramsey made his own over the last two years. He’s also pushing Ramsey wide and telling him to cover down the right, to not be as adventurous. He’s got Monreal on the left starting most games so that he can play Alexis in front of him. And finally, Wenger has Coquelin in midfield, a true defensive midfielder on a team which clearly decided to play a little defense from now on.

The good news is that Rosicky is saying that there is nothing ironic about this team. It’s not a pair of purple New Balance or a set of faux glasses and bow tie to make them “look” smart. The change is authentic. And personally? I’m a huge fan of authenticity.







Santi Cazorla: no ordinary second fiddle

During Saturday’s match against Crystal Palace, there was a moment where the ball had squirted loose in midfield and two players from opposite teams ran full speed to collect. Cazorla, the Arsenal man, beat the Crystal Palace midfielder to the ball by mere inches and at the speed he was running I expected him to take a heavy touch and kick the ball to an opponent. But the ball seemed to stick to him like velcro as he effortlessly switched from left to right foot, skipped by the Palace man, and started Arsenal’s attack. That moment of skill didn’t make any highlight reels and for many who watched the game might have been lost among the more stellar moments of the game, but for me, it epitomized the play of Cazorla, a player who somehow quietly does the brilliant work in the background while others take the glory.

Well, maybe he’s not so quiet but there is no doubt that he’s playing something of a background role to the star players like Özil and Sanchez.

Cazorla is a player who would walk right into a starring role on almost any team in Europe. And yet, at Arsenal, he’s playing behind Özil in the creative role, behind Ramsey in the shuttling role, behind Arteta in the penalty-taker role, and behind Sanchez in the attacking role. But such is his gift that Cazorla still manages to be Arsenal’s third leading scorer with 7 goals, second leading playmaker with 6 assists on 2.3 key passes per game, and the Gunners’ third best dribbler with 2.4 dribbles per game. He does all that while being Arsenal’s leading passer, best crosser, and the player who takes all of the Arsenal corners and set plays.

With talent like that, Cazorla should be the star player at Arsenal. But instead of being a solo artist himself, he is happy playing technically perfect football with leads like Özil and Sanchez. That’s why Santi Cazorla has to be the most talented second fiddle in Europe.

Starting with the 2-0 win over Borussia Dortmund, where both Arsenal goals were created by Cazorla, the Spaniard has managed to score or assist 15 goals in 17 games. It is a rich vein of form unmatched by any other Arsenal player and the main reason why he has won player of the month awards for two months running.

There have been some stinker’s in that run. The 2-0 loss to Southampton and the 2-1 loss to Spurs were probably his worst matches of the season. But in Cazorla’s defense, in the Southampton match, he was played in front of a central midfield pairing of Chambers and Coquelin, who made their first appearance together in that game and their inexperience showed as they struggled to get the ball out of defense. And against Tottenham, Cazorla was marked out of the game as Spurs forced out of shape Ramsey and the inexperienced Coquelin to beat them.

And the stinkers have been balanced out by astonishing matches. Against the reigning Premier League champions (you, know, Manchester City) Cazorla scored a goal and created the second goal as Arsenal cruised to a 2-0 win. Arsenal’s first away win against a top four rival in what seems like a decade. According to the WhoScored.com metric, Cazorla was flawless in that match, getting a perfect 10. He followed that performance up with a two-assist, one-goal performance in Arsenal’s 5-0 win over the hapless Aston Villa.

In many ways that Man City match epitomized Cazorla’s best qualities. Ten times in that match he picked the ball up and dribbled past City’s expensively assembled defensive midfielders. He doesn’t always have to dribble like that and in reality you don’t want to have to rely on a player dribbling out of defense to start the attack. But in that match, the way that City had Arsenal penned into their own half, his ability to hold on to the ball and beat the opposition time and again gave the Arsenal defense valuable time to catch their breath while also causing the City defense panic.

Watching the Man City midfielders fall all over themselves to try to get the ball off of him time and again was like watching a pro playing against little kids. Except in reverse: Cazorla is the smallest player on the pitch and the Man City defensive midfielders are these hulking figures trying in vain to tackle the ball away.

But it’s that ability to turn defense into attack that is Cazorla’s greatest attribute. When he gets the ball in midfield there is no hesitation, he already knows where his markers are, he knows where his teammates are, and he often just side-steps a defender with a simple one-two touch and then bombs a long ball up to Alexis. Or plays a perfectly weighted through ball to the feet of Welbeck. There is no stat (yet) which quantifies this ability, but if there were, I’m sure that Cazorla would lead the League.

When Cazorla first signed for Arsenal he was brought in to replace Cesc Fabregas. He did admirably in his first year but then Arsenal were presented with the chance to sign another world class creative midfielder, Mesut Özil, and Cazorla was relegated to a supporting role wide as Özil took the central spot. His goals and assists numbers dropped and it looked like he might be leaving Arsenal to be a star somewhere else.

But he didn’t leave. His head never dropped. He did what Arsene asked of him and plaayed his heart out for the team, wherever Wenger put him. And on the last game of the season, it was his strike from a free kick which gave Arsenal the impetus to come back from 2-0 down and win the FA Cup 3-2.

To Wenger’s great credit he ignored the pundits who said that it was a “no brainer” to always play Özil centrally and instead, when he returned from injury, he moved the German international to the left and let Cazorla keep the central midfield role. Instead of wondering how Cazorla and Özil can play together, people are now commenting on how seamlessly the two work together. And Wenger has been rewarded with that string of impressive performances from Cazorla. Cazorla, in turn, looks like a player who is really enjoying his football.

I know I’m really enjoying his football. Every time he plays I feel like I am watching a symphony, except when Özil or Sanchez stand up to take their solo, I turn to Cazorla, who is sitting there, eyes closed, soulfully playing the perfect notes to fill in for everything that the soloist leaves out.