The last time Arsenal beat Man City in Manchester was October 24th, 2010. Samir Nasri scored the first goal and set up the third in a blow out 3-0 win. Before the final whistle had blown Nasri’s agent was shopping him around and his performances even had Rio Ferdinand publicly tapping him up saying that Nasri was candidate for player of the year. The next summer, Nasri left for Man City and Arsène was forced to shop for his replacement. And if Nasri was the architect of the last win at City his departure made room for the architect of this year’s win at City, Santi Cazorla.
When Fabregas and Nasri left Wenger’s first choice creative midfielder was Santi Cazorla but Arsenal fans would have to wait a year to see Cazorla at Arsenal because Arsenal were outbid by Malaga in 2011. Wenger bought Arteta instead and Arsenal made do for another year.
The wait was worth it as Cazorla’s first season at Arsenal was magical. His job was to set up teammates and despite his impish size he often bossed the opposition final third. He finished that season with 12 goals and 11 assists and was by far the Gunners best player.
But then Arsenal bought Özil, or really Özil fell in our lap. Real Madrid needed to recoup some money from their Gareth Bale splurge and offered up the planet’s most prolific goal creator. Özil arrived amid much fanfare and immediately took Cazorla’s central spot, pushing the Spaniard to the wings or even, at times, to the bench.
Cazorla was still good enough to get plenty of games, though his minutes took a dip as Arsène juggled time between Cazorla and Özil. And with Ramsey making a breakthrough in central midfield it looked like Cazorla was going to be relegated to play backup or out of position.
Cazorla gave an interview in April of 2014 and it was painted by some in the press as Cazorla wanting out of Arsenal. If you read the whole interview, Cazorla never complains about playing time, about the position he was being forced to play, or about the extra defensive duties he had to take on. His only complaint was that he felt Arsenal were a bit soft mentally and he wanted to win trophies. He wanted to win trophies or he would leave, at the end of his contract. There was nothing wrong with a single word he said in that interview.
And Cazorla put his foot where his mouth was. When the trophy was on the line, Cazorla stepped up and kicked the ball into the back of the net, literally. Down 2-0 in the FA Cup final it was Cazorla’s goal from a direct free kick which relit Arsenal’s guns. Cazorla had shown the mental strength he needed from his teammates. It wasn’t just talk, Cazorla was stepping up.
Then, this summer, Arsenal bought Alexis Sanchez. Sanchez further complicated Cazorla’s position at Arsenal. So much so that there were rumors of Arsenal selling Cazorla.
But amid all this one thing has remained: Cazorla’s class. He has simply done what has been asked of him to help the team. He has put in the hard work off the pitch so that when he got his chance on the pitch he could show that he still has what it takes to lead this team’s offense.
The result of al his professionalism is that Cazorla was the mastermind of yesterday’s victory, Arsenal’s first such away victory since 2010. Beyond the assist and the goal, Cazorla ran Arsenal’s counter attack to perfection and still had energy left over to play defense. His numbers were off the hook: 54/59 passes, 10/14 dribbles, 2/6 tackles, 3 interceptions, 3 blocked crosses, and 2 clearances. Cazorla is an attacking midfielder and he was making tackles and clearances. Form is temporary, class is permanent. And with yesterday’s performance against the reigning Premier League champs Cazorla has proven once again that he is head of the class.
But what next for Cazorla? Özil will be back sooner than many expect. Ramsey is returning to full fitness, though he looked knackered at the end of the game against City. The work rate of Sanchez plus his goal scoring and playmaking makes him undroppable. And so where do we put the man who has helped carry this Arsenal team through an injury crisis amid a serious challenge for our spot in the Champions League places?
If you keep him in midfield where he played box-to-box with Ramsey, that means Özil goes left and Sanchez goes right with either Welbeck or Giroud up top. If you put him out left, then Sanchez goes right and we lose a bit of box-to-box energy with Özil in the middle of the park.
Complicating all this is the fact that the partnership he has developed with Sanchez is as important to Arsenal as the partnership between Mertesacker and Koscielny at the back. The proof is that Sanchez and Cazorla have either scored or assisted on 10 of Arsenal’s last 11 goals. They are a dynamic 1-2 punch in Arsenal’s attack.
So what do we do when Özil is fit? I don’t know, except I think Arsène has to play him.
¹Key Passes are a funny stat but Cazorla was third best in that category and was the best in creating chances from through balls with 17.