Tag Archives: Cazorla


Ramsey and Arteta: square pegs filling giant round holes

Good morning all, I had a good chat with Tim Stillman and Chris Toronyi on the ArseAmerica Podcast yesterday and if you have a few minutes today you should take a listen. In it, one of the things Stillman mentions, and something echoed by Arseblog today, is that with Cazorla out this is a really big chance for Aaron Ramsey to step up and show what he can offer. But even a cursory glance at the stats has left me feeling like this is a big ask for Aaron.

Cazorla dovetails very nicely with Mesut Özil. It’s not just his job to pass the ball to Mesut, he has co-creator responsibilities. It’s a 1-2 punch with Mesut the main man and Cazorla there behind him causing teams to cover multiple options. No one creates as many scoring chances as Mesut Ozil (58 this season) but having Cazorla there (with 37 key passes) makes it more difficult for a defense to just shut down Özil.

Also when it comes to taking corners and free kicks, Cazorla and Özil share responsibilities. In terms of set plays, Cazorla takes about 40% of the corners and about 67% of the free kicks. He’s second on the team in key passes per game from corners, and he leads the team in assists off free kicks. In fact, he has just the one assist from open play this season.

Further back up the field, Cazorla does the difficult job of bringing the ball forward for Arsenal and he does so with precious few mistakes. In fact, he and Coquelin are the league’s most efficient duo.

Caz is a 90% passer this season and is passing at a career high 82 passes per game. The only players passing the ball more accurately than Cazorla are: Affelay, Schneiderlin, Ki, and the top pass% in the League, Coquelin.

Cazorla also leads the League in passes per game with 82. The second most active passer is Cesc Fabregas who is averaging 69.5 passes per game.

This combination of Cazorla and Coquelin in midfield is potent indeed. Cazorla made 85 inaccurate short passes this season, that’s about 6 per game. Francis Coquelin misplaced 37 short passes this season. That means that between these two players, in 26 appearances, they missed just 122 short passes. Again, Cesc Fabregas, the second most prolific passer in the League, has misplaced 120 short passes by himself.

Coquelin also improved his first touch by leaps and bounds this season and it showed in the stats. In 12 matches, Coquelin turned the ball over (miscontrolled) just 4 times. This isn’t entirely attributed just to his physical ability to control a pass but also better positioning on the field, in other words, not receiving the pass in a dangerous area. Cazorla, on the other hand does often receive the ball in tight spaces and his turnover numbers are even more amazing, considering where he gets the ball and how often, he has just 12. The two of them combined for 16 turnovers, while Aaron Ramsey, playing in a more advanced position already has 18 in just 10 games.

The other thing that Cazorla does exceptionally well for Arsenal is dribble in tight spaces. You’ve seen it: he collects the ball deep and then makes a little twinkle-toed move and slips past his marker creating a chasm of space for him and his teammates to work in. Cazorla is 36/45 dribbling this season. That’s an incredible 80% success rate. Coquelin was no slouch in this regard, he was 22/25 an even more impressive 88% dribbling rate.

So, what you have with Coquelin and Cazorla are the two very best possession based midfielders in the League and one of the League’s most creative midfielders.  But wait… there’s more.

Yeah, defense.

Coquelin’s pure numbers have dropped since last season but that is to be expected. Last season teams were testing his mettle. He passed those tests and so this season fewer teams are dribbling at him. He’s also gotten better at his positioning. Barring that lunge he made to injure his own ligaments, Coquelin has been out of position less often this season and combined with teams going around/over him that means fewer chances to tackle.

Still, he and Cazorla led the team with 51 attempted tackles each. Coquelin made 75% of his tackles, while Cazorla made about 49%.

And interceptions, Coquelin doesn’t lead Arsenal or the League (Koscielny is Arsenal’s most active pass… rusher?) but he gets a healthy 2.7 per game and Cazorla, as part of the Arsenal press, averages 1.8.

What this all boils down to is the fact that Arsenal have lost their starting midfield duo, a team-within-a-team, which is one of the most effective partnerships in the League. The players being mooted to replace them, Ramsey and Arteta, once formed a little mini-team of their own in 2013/14 and so we have a point of comparison:


Let me first state unequivocally that this is not a perfect comparison. The League seems to shift slightly every year, in terms of tackles per game, interceptions, and even number of passes and shots.

The other factor is that in ’13/14 Arsenal’s midfield was very different than it is now. Cazorla and Özil played wide a lot, Wilshere got 24 apps, and even Tomas Rosicky played 27 times, including 17 starts.

Arsenal’s attack and defense were different as well. Ramsey and Arteta had an excellent passing partnership in midfield which sometimes lacked that ability to get forward and break through enemy lines which Cazorla and Coquelin can do. And on defense, Arteta is not as mobile as many defensive midfielders and has to use his game nous to control space rather than simply tackle players away. 

So, what this chart represents isn’t a criticism but rather a riddle. It’s rather simple to say that Ramsey has a chance or that he has to step up. Step up to what? Dribbling more? Playing the passing lanes better? Creating more for his teammates? Being more of an all around midfielder than he has been? Perhaps. But that’s not something a player can simply “decide” to start doing. It’s not like Ramsey’s been holding back on the dribbling for all these years and he’s suddenly going to step up.

For my way of thinking, the problem is that Arsenal, as a team, have been playing a certain way with certain personnel — Cazorla, Coquelin, Özil, and Alexis. Two of those players, Coquelin and Cazorla, have formed a crucial partnership and now both are injured for at least three months. That leaves a giant aporia in Arsenal’s midfield and Wenger has the unenviable task of either fitting two square pegs into giant round holes or the even more unenviable task of retooling how the team plays.


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.