Tag Archives: Cazorla


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.


Man at the match; Chary: Birmingham Villa swatted aside by Mesut and Santi

A solitary first half goal, well taken by Olly Giroud from a sublime Özil flick, was no portent for the avalanche of goals in the second half as a very ordinary Villa side capitulated with four more conceded in the second half, the fifth the cherry on the scoring cake.

With Saturday’s results all going for the teams around the Arsenal the was no margin for error and an out of sorts Villa looked like the ideal opposition.

The Arsenal pre match warm up

The Arsenal pre match warm up

My seat in the North Bank lower was in front of the warm up area for the playing members of the squad where Chesney, while firing in corner kicks for Ospina to collect, seemed to have a chastened look on his face.

The away support were no doubt hoping for a repeat of the corresponding fixture last season where the resulting home defeat led to much angst amongst the Gooner faithful.

The Birmingham Villa contingent

The Birmingham Villa contingent

Selection wise the expected unavailability of Alexis seemed to cause less consternation than it would have done earlier in the season, a reflection of the current better squad depth with Theo and Özil starting and Monreal replacing Gibbs at the back – a very strong looking side and a healthy bench, with possibly only the substitute striker department being inexperienced, Welbeck instead of Chubby Akpom would have been preferrable.

Soon after kick off a chance fell to Theo and as is the case nowadays the modern day supporter displays schitzoid tendencies by screeching with derision when a player doesn’t bury every chance, as a voice from behind me indicated. To be fair Walcott did show signs of rustiness as later in the game he would race to the touch line to keep a ball in but he approached the ball from the wrong side to scoop it back in, a basic error.

Another voice would say:

“This lot are rubbish, we should be getting at least four against them”

In comparison to Theo’s awkwardness Özil was gliding around the pitch with his trademark panache and pretty soon a lofted ball from the centre landed in his ambit, then a sublime flick from Mesut and Olly collected then slammed home to open the scoring.

Long distance view of Olly's goal

Long distance view of Olly’s goal

With the number of crucial goals the big Frenchman has been scoring lately the English media will have to tone down their accusation of him being a flat track bully; yes it was against lowly Villa but the first goal in any game is crucial.

After conceding fairly early Vila had to step up the pace of their game and then Coquelin’s worth came into view – he provided a robust presence in the middle of the pitch which Arsenal have lacked for a while. His tackling was generally clean and on the spot even if he may concede a few fouls but in the hurly burly of any midfield this almost inevitable.

While Coquelin’s bustling presence was a new pleasure to behold, a not so new one was Santi’s dazzling close control, where he seems to pluck lofted passes to him out of the air and caress the ball with ease.

The only Villa players that caught my eye were for naughty infringements – Benteke (as slow and as lumbering a striker as you will ever see) barging Kozzer as he was about to head a Villa cross clear, and another barge from the rotund Villa number 5 on Ramsey as he was jumping into a header.

Özil continued to ghost across all areas and, with Santi, pick and tease apart Villa’s defence to the extent that as half time approached the Ashburton Grove crowd felt the Arsenal should have been two or three up, with only some good saves by the bald Villa keeper and the woodwork preventing the half time lead from being greater.

The Villa manager must have had the hair dryer out as for about ten minutes after the start of the second half the away team actually pressed forward with purpose and Ospina’s calm, composed keeping continued to shine through.

Every Villa cross, and forward foray, caused little concern amongst the home support as the feeling was that Ospina would deal with it – no panic, just unflappability.

This being the first time I’d seen our Colombian keeper I hadn’t heard the call from the Gooner support when he would take a goal kick:

Osss-peeeeeeeeee-na !

A tad childish, but good fun and also something that may make Chesney grimace at the thought of how popular his counterpart has become so quickly.

As Villa saw no way past the twin shields of Coquelin and Ospina a breakaway attack led to Olly threading a ball through to Özil who calmly slotted home for the second. One goal and one assist already and our record signing looking well on the way to a return to form.

With his mid field partner in wizardry, Santi Cazorla, Özil weaved a spell on the Villa players that left them chasing shadows to the extent that somehow the BFG on one occasion found himself driving into the Villa penalty box and slotting over a cross that just eluded the Arsenal strikers – Beckenbauer-esque !

Santi and Özil bamboozle

Santi and Özil bamboozle

Again Santi found another perfect through ball and Theo ran onto it and finished instinctively, the best way for our number 14 and the match was safe at three nil to the good guys.

As expected the same voice who admonished Theo for fluffing the early chance was singing “Theo, Theee-oo!” the loudest of all just then.

With the game won a flurry of substitutions saw Tomas “Rockin” Rosicky and Chubby Akpom come on, the latter to replace Giroud who was by then visibly wincing from a first half collision with the Villa back line.

Having seen little of Chubby it was interesting to see what he brought to our attack. On the basis of today’s cameo a more controlled version of Sanogo’s energy maybe.

That drive saw him latch onto a pass into the penalty area and to my eyes he appeared to take a heavy first touch but somehow the Villa keeper was deemed to have fouled him after he lost control of the ball. Having had more than our fair share of penalties denied we were all happy to take one that probably wasn’t deserved.

Up stepped our man of the moment Santi (who had received the PFA player of the month award before kickoff) and to rub salt into the wound the Villa keeper got a hand to the penalty but only succeeded in parrying the ball onto the post and seeing it ricochet into the net, four nil.

A cheeky chap in the big screen video control room then showed a close up of the Villa keeper kicking the post in frustration after Santi wheeled off in celebration to much mirth in the home support.

A final flourish was the fifth goal, where after the usual Arsenal succession of probing passes around the penalty area a pass allowed Bellerin to run onto the ball in a line towards the goal and it seemed he’d decided, “enough of this fannying around, I’ll slam this one”.

Hector makes it 5

Hector makes it 5

A well deserved debut goal and the BFG’s usual applause for the crowd was in the upbeat mood befitting a thumping five nil victory.

The BFG thanks the gooners

The BFG thanks the gooners

While the opposition was not especially testing it was a resounding win that sets us up nicely for a trip to the swamplands of the Middlesex reprobates next weekend.

Last word to a couple of Villa fans overheard in their high-pitched whingeing Brummy accents in the queue for the station:

“I thought they’d be shit without Sanchez”

One man team? Emphatically not.


By ChärybdÏß1966 (on Twitter @charybdis1966)