Four games without a win in the early start of 2016. 3 draws and a defeat. That is what derailed our title challenge in 2015/16, dropping us from 1st to 4th in just a handful of games.
The key factor of our drop in form? The absence of Santi Cazorla.
29 November 2015. Norwich away. A 1-1 draw. On the face of it, not very significant. In the grand scheme of things, an away draw in the Premier League is not a game which loses you a title.
But it was the injuries Arsenal suffered in the game that would define the season. Alexis Sanchez hobbled off after 60 minutes, but it was not the diminutive Chilean whose absence would be felt by Arsenal. It would be the diminutive Spanaird that would be missed.
Cazorla went down with injury in the 46th minute after being fouled. After a minute or so delay whilst he received treatment, he hobbled back on and actually completed the 90 minutes. It was only after the game that Cazorla was diagnosed with knee ligament damage. It rules him out until April. He would not actually bee seen until the last game of the season.
In the short term, Santi Cazorla being out did not really damage Arsenal. After the draw against Norwich, Arsenal won their next 3 games, and 6 of their next 7 in the Premier League. FA Cup and Champions League wins saw this go to 8 wins in 9. The talk at the time was for all the love and praise for Cazorla, his absence was not really felt.
But it was over the long term we started to notice his absence. The short term form was great but, after the run of 6 in 7, Arsenal would only go on to win another 6 league games when Cazorla did not play. 6 out of 17. Awful form. Not title winning form. We were lucky to finish 2nd.
In the 2nd half of the season, Arsenal struggled to transition the ball from defence into attack. No deep lying ball player who could pick the ball off the centre backs and launch it further up the field accurately.
In Francis Coquelin and Aaron Ramsey, we had plenty of willing running, but not much subtile play. The play that Santi Cazorla gave us.
Arsene Wenger actually stumbled on playing Cazorla deeper when he was asked to do a more defensive job in the 2-0 away win against Manchester City in January 2015. He was Man of the Match. Ran the game. City could not get close to him.
What Cazorla gives you when playing deep is exceptional. Pirlo-esque. Maybe even better.
Having someone so talented play so deep gives Arsenal so many more options in attack. It means we can go from defence to attack quickly. It means Mesut Ozil does not need to drop deep to pick up the ball. And with Cazorla being two footed, it opens up both sides of the pitch.
Cazorla can get involved in the short passing, intrinsic play, but also hit it long if needed. He is a double threat. And also impossible to mark.
When someone is so deep, with so much ability, it gives opponents a conundrum. The attacker midfielder (someone like Ozil) is not going to work hard to get around a defensive midfielder to stop him playing. This leaves opponents in a conundrum.
Do they push forward a defensive midfielder to get around the deep lying ball player, to stop him, which in result will leave less protection in front of the defence, more space for the likes of Mesut Ozil. Or do they keep disciplined, don’t chase Cazorla, and end up letting him run the game.
Pirlo did it brilliantly for years for club and country. Cazorla does the exact same job. The main difference between Cazorla and Pirlo is that Cazorla is two footed.
Whilst I think we do clearly miss Santi Cazorla, I also think there is a little bit of getting better when not playing.
We see it in football, we see it in cricket, sportstars get better when they are not playing, if the team is struggling. By Santi Cazorla not being involved when Arsenal’s 2015/16 title challenge went up in smoke, it made people put two and two together. It made people put him on a pedastool.
We have seen them same at Manchester United with Michael Carrick. The more he does not play, the better he seems to get. The same with Paul Scholes for England.
There is no argument that all 3 players are (or have been) brilliant players. But there is certainly some part that they were made to seem even better when they were not playing.
This season he picked up an injury in the 6-0 victory over Ludogorets. 6 wins in a row before his injury. 3 wins from 7 since his injury. We miss Santi Cazorla.
At 31, with 2 long-ish terms injuries in 12 months, and his contract coming to an end (allegedly) at the end of this season, Arsenal have a decision to make on Santi Cazorla.
Do they stick with him in the hope he gets injury clear, and has a long career like Pirlo. Or do we look at the over 30 data and injury record and start planning to replace him now.
But it is not easy replacing a player like Santi Cazorla. Especially his two footness. It can not be underestimated how key opening both sides of the pitch from the middle of the park can be.
I see names such as Isco banded about. Or playing Ramsey and Granit Xhaka in tandem. But sometimes we have to accept some players have such a special gift that they are irreplaceable.
Is Santi Cazorla irreplaceable?