In my last column I suggested I would consider the central midfield area ahead of the new campaign so here goes. Whilst in the modern era we to firmly accept football has become a squad game, at Arsenal under Wenger, I see this differently, because rotation has never quite become the norm. In recent years Emirates rotation had been enforced via injury rather than chosen by the manager.
Quite often in football one player’s misfortune can benefit not just another colleague but also the manager and the team. A new better solution emerges from apparent adversity and at Arsenal this was firmly the case in 14/15 with Bellerin and Coquelin. However, whilst they are the obvious examples another player was impacted by injuries to seemingly first choice Arsenal midfielders last season and for that man, Santi Cazorla, I feel it was career defining.
In his debut season Cazorla was utilised primarily in a central attacking midfield role where his impact after arriving from Spain rivalled that of Alexis last season. However, in the last third of the campaign, as Podolski fell out of favour, Santi was asked to play increasingly on the left. Whilst most said this was his natural role and where he had played in Spain, for this observer his impact on games lessened and he did not have the natural instincts to become the second striker when the attack came from the right. His tendency was to drift inside which often left his full-back exposed.
The arrival of Ozil consigned Cazorla to the left flank, or occasionally right flank the following season, and four goals and eight assists in the league compared to 12 and 11 respectively in his debut season tells its own story. He often cut a forlorn figure and was a shadow of the player that that had taken the Premier League by storm only a year before. Rumours of the diminutive Spaniard leaving for a return to his homeland in the summer of 2014, despite a wonderful FA Cup final cameo, were not a surprise to many as it seemed Ozil had taken the role in which he had thrived.
Having elected to stay and fight for his place in the team he obviously loves, Cazorla must have been stunned at the beginning of 14/15 to still be stuck out wide even with Ozil absent as Wenger gave Wilshere the central attacking role. However, as Arsenal’s usual injury woes returned, the Gunners’ campaign, Cazorla’s season and perhaps his career were to take a surprising turn.
Initially injuries to Ramsey and then Arteta caused Wenger to move the playmaker centrally, not in his old role, but in a deeper one as part of a pivot, or in a two ahead of the DM when we opted for 4-1-4-1. Initially against Newcastle at home he shone alongside Flamini, but the game was not a true test. The following encounter was away at Liverpool and, in a game largely dominated by our hosts, Cazorla surprised us all acting as a midfield general ahead of his back four.
From that day to the end of the season there was simply no way Wenger could consider shifting Cazorla from the deep lying playmaker role and from January, when Coquelin returned from loan to slot in beside him, Arsenal suddenly had true balance. Coquelin, the interceptor, tackler, destroyer alongside the hard working tidy, ball retaining visionary was a partnership that carried the team through to the end of the campaign and a second successive FA Cup triumph.
Whilst Coquelin had been much heralded, and rightly so, it is the partnership that is the key because for Arsene’s system to work it is not just winning the ball back in front of the back four, it is the retention and intelligent re-distribution of it. Coquelin allows his partner to get forward and use his passing range, having the discipline to hold back, but Cazorla too has grown into the deeper role. One of the real strengths of the Spaniard, perhaps under-appreciated is his complete two footedness, so rare even in world class players. This gives him the ability to receive the ball with confidence in tight areas, under pressure facing his own goal because the opposition player behind him will never know which way he will turn. This was stunningly evident in the match that defined our season and gave the team new belief as we won away at Man City.
So the challenge for Ramsey and Wilshere is a real one if Wenger looks to play the same way this campaign. The Welshman was magnificent in 2013/14 but will need to curb his attacking instincts if he is to reclaim his central berth from Cazorla and it is difficult to see this in the short term. Wilshere is the more likely cover and alternative, more content to sit and dictate play from a deeper position.
The challenge for Wenger and for his players is to show that they can adapt their natural game to fit the team system as Santi has. Actual rotation will only appeal to Wenger if the players are interchangeable and, at present, that is not obvious. The other option is that Wenger changes formation and systems for differing opposition. He did this last season to a degree and this may lead to opportunities for those waiting in the wings.
Other than that, Ramsey and, to a lesser degree, Wilshere, may be waiting on injuries to demonstrate they can do what Cazorla can to for this team, because it is always about the team and not about the individuals, whatever they may have done in the past.