After yesterday’s victory against Middlesbrough, I had a brief exchange with GC about the future of Santi Cazorla. This got the old brain cogs going.
Santi Cazorla, Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil. all brilliant players, but how do you get them all on the pitch, at the same time, in a formation that get’s the best out of all of them?
I imagine Arsene Wenger’s original plan when he bought Alexis Sanchez was that he would play as a striker. With similar attributes to Luis Suarez (without the violent, biting, racist tendencies), it looked like a role which could suit him. That would then enable Wenger to play Cazorla, Ozil & Walcott in behind. But Sanchez looked lost upfront.
The next solution was 4141. With injuries (to Walcott) at the time, it meant there was even enough space to put Ramsey and/or Wilshere in the side. Again, it did not work.
In recent games, however, there have been signs of a new tactic, new positioning, which is showing signs of working. Playing Santi Cazorla deeper.
I first noticed this in the victory against Manchester City. Whilst he was supposed to be the more advanced of the 3 man midfield, he put in a tremendous defensive shift. He got a goal and an assist, but it was his ability in his own half that impressed me.
Tackles, clearances, interceptions, blocked shots, passing out of trouble and running the ball clear. He was an all action midfielder. He showed the attributes required to play in what I call the ‘Waterboy Role’. The man to carry the ball off the defence and defensive midfielder, and link in with the attacking players.
Yesterday against Middlesbrough, he once more played the role, and yes, I know he was up against a Championship side, but it worked.
His ability to play out of danger is impressive. Being two footed, it means he always has a pass on. He also has the ability to beat a player, opening the pitch up more.
Whilst he does not have the pace to play on the wing, meaning that his ability to beat a man is negated as they get straight back on him, in the middle of the park, his skills give him the extra half second to then play the right ball.
With his natural ability, he rarely needs to boot the ball clear. He always creates a situation where a successful pass is on.
Against Middlesbrough, he attempted 114 passes at a 91.2% success rate.
He also showed plenty of signs of linking up with Mesut Ozil ahead of him. Ozil’s stats were similarly impressive. 97 passes at 92.8% success. With the pair of them in the middle, you feel we have the opportunity to pass ourselves out of any situation.
With Cazorla playing deeper, it would also allow us to spring onto the counter attacker quicker. He is a better passer than Aaron Ramsey, and plays the ball quicker. Rather than Ramsey getting the ball, than having to play it to Cazorla or Ozil ahead of him, which slows the play down, it means we can launch the ball from deeper, and go both way’s. Especially with Mikel Arteta currently out, Cazorla adds the extra passing prowess to build from the back.
Of course, there are some down sides. Cazorla is not naturally defensive, and his slight frame could leave us exposed. These would both be solved if we went and signed a bully of a defensive midfielder to play in behind him, to protect him, to do the work of 2 men allowing Cazorla to be a bit free’r.
And obviously, it was just Middlesbrough. Could we play the formation against a better side who could possibly expose a defensive weakness? Probably not. But that is where tactical flexibility comes into it.
At home, against 70% of Premier League sides, we have most of the ball and dictate the play. We could play Cazorla deep, with Ozil in ahead, as we do very little defending. Against the better sides, where we might not have as much of the ball, you change it round, dropping either Ozil or Cazorla for someone a bit more physical, a bit more defensive.
In the past, I have always felt Cazorla performs better deeper. It allows him the freedom of the pitch, opening up a lot of grass for him to play into. Whilst he is dangerous around the edge of the area, playing deeper allows him to build up with the play.
Where this tactical change would also leave Ramsey and Wilshere is also questionable. Before, it was a case of these two fighting out for the Waterboy Role, with Cazorla and Ozil fighting it out for the Number 10. Moving Cazorla deeper, on a more semi-permanent basis will reduce their playing time.
Then again, both Wilshere and Ramsey spend so much of their time out injured, it would not create a massive issue. And with Wilshere being just 23, and Cazorla now 30, it could be a simple case of Wilshere being Cazorla’s successor.
What is for certain is playing Cazorla deeper allows us to play Ozil in his natural position, with Sanchez one side and Walcott the other.
All we need to do is buy a top defensive midfielder to support him.