This is the last article of a series of 3 (read the first here and second here) in which I assess a deep tactical issue. Arsenal has cruelly suffered from a lack of defensive discipline which I intended to demonstrate was a tactical and collective concern. After dismissing the idea that M’Vila could be the man we need, I intended to demonstrate that defending is no independent entity and cannot work as a vaccum. Although it is hard to imagine how an offensive player can nurture a better defensive system, I think the addition to Cazorla in midfield will give Arsenal a strong technical leadership upfront that will benefit the whole collective play.
Giroud and Podolski are first class recruits and van Persie was part of Wenger plans
We are now less than three weeks away from the start of the 2012/2013 Premier League season. With early signings of Podolski and Giroud, both for perfectly reasonable fees, Arsène and the board can be proud of what they achieved. Some might even expect Wenger to only buy one or two more youngsters and put an end to our summer business. Giroud and Podoslki are two different players but they share the common quality I have praised in my previous article : tactical astuteness. Both players can undoubtedly provide meaning and direction to the offensive movement, much to the benefit of the overall collective efficiency. As it’s been written here and there, Olivier Giroud’s signature probably signals the end of Chamakh’s hopes at the Emirates, although it is now understood he will remain here to be third choice cover.
Giroud and Podolski both have that it takes to be successful in England, and it is only a matter of time and fitness until they prove Wenger right. With wingers Gervinho and Walcott, not to mention other young players pushing up like japanese ace Ryo Miyaichi, the attacking line-up looks complete. New recruits will provide praiseworthy depth to our attacking three. Injuries can always deter our team from winning trophies again this season, but theoretically, things look bright.
I sincerely think it will genuinely be another blow for Wenger when van Persie leaves. There might be a small chance Robin van Persie could stay and surely this gives Wenger some ideas about the Dutchman role in his attacking set-up. But our former captain has stated his desire not to renew his contract, and Arsène must today be worried that he may not only loose van Persie goals, but more importantly, his intelligence, flair and movement upfront. Wenger obviously had planned to give the Dutchman a new Bergkamp role (a bit ex-centered 9,5) just behind Giroud. He sincerely admires van Persie’s movement on and off the ball and has stated so on numerous occasions during the Euros. Wenger’s inquietude is patent : Arsenal lacked of fit and proven center forwards and relied too much on van Persie’s goals. Surely Wenger could bring even more from van Persie associating him with Giroud. Robin sure is a finisher, but he is far from being limited to that and Wenger knows that.
Do we have enough genuine attacking midfielders ?
Let me put it this way : van Persie and Theo Walcott put aside, who’s our leading goal scorer? Any idea? It is Bendtner (8) and only then comes Arteta (7). There is obviously a step missing between the strikers and the central midfield. The Arsenal was used to have plenty of center or wide attacking midfielders in the past years. Arsenal has possessed many talented players that had been deployed either in the midfield three or on the wings of a 442 system by Wenger (Pirès, Overmars, Ljunberg, Hleb, Nasri…) All of those players shared tremendous qualities : superior technical ability and passing, pace, splendid flair and vision. But they all needed to understand the winger role and add goals and assists to their palette for Wenger to fully praise their contribution to the game.
Last year, it is fair to say Yossi Benayoun and Tomas Rosicky were Arsenal’s only two such attacking playmakers, wide or central. Ramsey was also deployed on the pitch as the most advanced midfielder but never really on a wing, which clearly indicated Wenger consider the nature and qualities of the Welshman to be different from the previously mentioned. Rosicky is more direct and keeps the ball moving, whether by passing it or running with it. Ramsey tends to hold on to it for longer and is a little more lateral. The three of them mainly succeeded in endorsing their tactical and technical role, but their lack of form sometimes left Arsenal’s offensive transitions very ponderous, and overall lacked true efficiency. The only attacking midfielder remaining in the Arsenal squad today is thus Rosicky. You will understand why I must rule out Arteta, Ramsey, Diaby and Wilshere for this role, as they are of a different mould.
Rosicky is injured and ageing, Ramsey must stick to his role to improve. Arshavin has been more of a forward or a winger under Wenger and has shown some unacceptable disinterest over the first part of last season. It thus has become clear to me that instead of another defensive midfielder (who should not be M’Vila anyway), the addition of a true technical offensive leader, with superior flair and creativity, would be extremely wanted. If you look carefully, nobody really replaced Nasri and Fabregas last summer.
So, if Wenger could find a player with huge tactical awareness, pace, flair, perfect passing and an exquisite vision, this would be perfect. And I think this player exists. He is not Iniesta or Silva. He is Cazorla and he’s Arsenal bound.
Villarreal from heaven to hell : Cazorla was more important than they thought
The past 5 years saw the emergence of the Spanish possession football, a mix of Dutch philosophy and traditional Spannish “toqué” (one touch passing). During all these years, short talented Spanish midfielders such as Xavi, Iniesta, Silva, have been lauded for their exquisite technique and decisive contribution to this offensive doctrine. Traditionally, the two teams that receive all the plaudits for this extremely seducing football are Barcelona and the national squad. But another team had caught my eyes in the past years. It was 2010-2011 Villarreal, that finished fourth in la Liga.
Villarreal were indeed relying on the Spanish toqué. Their game was quick and brilliant. The beautiful line-up upfront was composed of Nilmar, Rossi, Borja Valero and Cazorla. The small ambidextrous Asturian realized one of the best seasons of his career, and that is when many of us discovered him as a player. Cazorla had had to struggle to be a starter at Villarreal. Often deemed too short and weak in the past, he certainly proved his worth on the pitch, and Pellegrini gave him the position vacated by the Argentine Juan Roman Riquelme. At 26 years old, Cazorla had managed to become a fans’ favourite and the club even thought about offering him a lifetime contract.
But Cazorla had nearly succumbed to the lure of Real Madrid. In 2009, the white house wanted to invest exclusively in Spanish players to bring back some Spanish authenticity to the club and emulate Barça’s philosophy. They even signed a preliminary agreement with the player. Some hours later, Santi called Casillas to announce his arrival and the one of David Villa. The phone conversation was captured by television channels, and that media blow supposedly wrecked the two transfers. Two days later, Cazorla appeared at a press conference to announce the renovation of his contract with Villarreal and he stated his “eternal love” for the club. A few months later, a broken fibula and a knee injury prevented Cazrola from winning the world cup with the Spanish squad.
”In Spain, there was Zidane and now there is Xavi. But along with Iniesta, Santi is the future of La Liga. And luckily, he is with us!” said Marcos Senna at that time.
Last summer, Villarreal had to deal with huge financial troubles. The board found themselves forced to part with a big salary to survive. A tough choice that any club dreads. Two options were available to the Yellow Submarine: sell striker Giuseppe Rossi to Barça or part with the local icon, Santi Cazorla. This is the Spanish international who finally left El Madrigal. Observers and pundits welcomed the decision, ruling that it was vital that Villarreal kept Rossi. The fans, however, were much displeased. The ten months of competition that followed proved them right. With Malaga, Cazorla had become a hero and had helped his team finish fourth of La Liga and qualify for the Champions League, while his former club suffered a free fall to the Segunda Division. Yes, Rossi was injured, but mainly, Cazorla was never replaced as de Guzman had clearly struggled in midfield for the whole season.
Cazorla is the man
A product of Real Oviedo’s praised Cantera youth system, Santiago is gifted with a full range of passes and an agility which strangely resembles that of Iniesta. He boasts excellent technical ability, including close control, passing, shooting and dribbling. His creativity is one of the brightest in Europe, and puts him statistically among the best in the world along with Xavi, Özil, Reus, Fabregas, Silva and Iniesta in terms of creative passing. He is always ahead of the game and anticipates passing opportunities for his fellow forwards with crucial wit. Like Arteta, and most international Spanish midfielders, his off-the-ball intelligence is extremely advanced, and he can anticipate passes from the midfield which create opportunities to score or to pass on to a forward.
What Wenger also surely loves about Cazorla is his understanding of the winger role. Arsène has always been fond of in-game tactical changes, and central attacking midfielders are often played on the wing, drifting in and out without ever unaccommodating other strikers or forwards. This tactical knowledge is a Wenger signature, and many players can be grateful towards Wenger for that. Nasri for instance, learnt this in London, not in Marseille or Manchester.
Cazorla’s versatility in midfield is already high as picture (whoscored.com) above shows. He is already deeply knowledgeable about any position in midfield. He can play on either wing and as a defensive midfielder too, with much success (as he did against Gijon, delivered one assist, was voted man of the match). He can defend and always stands when he does, which is a fabulous quality. He can bring extreme balance to the team in the sense that is not a proper winger : he will drift in and out of position with intelligence and awareness. Wenger pulled off a clever trick when he put on Benayoun instead of Gervinho for our last Premier League match against Manchester City. Zabaleta often found himself marking shadows as Benayoun drifted in and out of position. And instead of attacking the space, the lateral defender sat back. Finally, an ability Wenger surely relishes to add to his attacking midfield set-up will be Cazorla’s finishing technique and composure.
A unique richness of tactical options ahead
Now, just imagine van Persie staying. And it might well be the case if Cazorla joins, for van Persie knows what the value of such a player. Wenger would suddenly have such an amount of tactical possibilities, the richest since 2005. Cazorla, Giroud and Podolski, along with Wilshere and Diaby returning from injuries provide an absolutely top class polymorphic collective set-up.
On the first figure below, I’ve put up our best tactical option in my opinion, copying last year’s Juventus tactics (and some will remember our famous defensive set-up Bould – Adams – Keown). Most players occupying natural positions, the collective cohesion is assured by each player awareness of where they are on the pitch and where to expect the others. I came up with a very ambitious squad, trying to give all players their preferred tactical links. Contrary to what the 3 center backs suggest, both wings and center of the field are blocked, and the team will operate as a strong block. Yet, this line-up is so different than what Arsenal is used to it would take some time to adapt. Offensively, there might be less movement, thus the need for two goal poachers upfront, with Santos (or Rosicky) and Cazorla as wide playmakers. Robin has been preferred here to Podolski for his record at the Arsenal, but the German and arguably Walcott or Gervinho would do. When Wilshere returns, he may replace Coquelin in this 11 and invert his position with Arteta’s.
On the second figure, I’ve tried to imagine the most realistic line-up, without van Persie, keeping in mind Wenger’s preferences and the fact Diaby might be preferred to Wilshere until november. This team is balanced and provide multiple solutions. Cazorla could also take Diaby’s place in the midfield, with Theo as a winger for a more offensive side, with perhaps less defensive proficiency. Adding Cazorla in this team clearly gives him the tactical leadership upfront, especially if van Persie leaves. He’ll have to link up with Giroud, Podolski and Walcott or Gervais. I am confident it would be a successful cooperation given Cazorla’s passing quality.
On figure 3, I tried to imagine our most offensive yet balanced line-up.I’ve put as much speed and technique as possible, putting the tactical battle aside. This team would be defensively exposed, especially on the wings. The only thing you could regret is the absence of Giroud. He would be needed for an individual response crossings and offensive anchorage. This 11 also looks like Barcelona’s 3-4-3 tactics. (See their match against Zaragoza, for instance, 11/19/11, 4-0).
On figure 4, I’ve given Cazorla a real playmaking role behind two gifted but different strikers. In this case, I’ve put Ramsey and Arteta as links to both van Persie and Cazorla who would feed Giroud with opportunities. This system might be the toughest to establish as it lacks more tactical framework and relies more on talent and flair, giving both van Persie and Cazorla more freedom. Giroud is thus a must in this situation to provide discipline, bend the offensive play and create spaces for van Persie and the midfielders.
I only chose to imagine four interesting potential line-ups, shaking up the defense here and there too, to demonsrate how deep would be our potential tactical system, with some inventive but coherent foundations. I call that ambition. Truth is we can think of many line-ups, and Cazorla always bring ideas and solutions to support them. Interestingly two other players really instrumental in those set-ups are versatile Santos and Coquelin. Those are two interesting players tactically, as they can play many roles fairly well. Eboué used to be a fans’ favourite thanks to his versatility, and joy too.
Yes, indeed, Santi is the man. And I’ve heard he’s such a nice lad.Do you think I’ve got it all wrong about Cazorla and the Arsenal ? Do you want to add something ? Tell me what you think, please comment below !
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