Has this Arsenal midfielder been misused by Arsene Wenger?

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With Arsenal’s injury problems mounting, the news that Santi Cazorla will be out until March is another huge blow for the club. The diminutive Spaniard has been a pivotal part of everything good about Arsenal so far this year but now faces a prolonged spell on the sidelines.

After impressing for Villarreal, Recreativo de Huelva and Malaga in La Liga, Cazorla arrived at the Emirates in 2012, one of many to leave Andalucia after Malaga’s financial woes. Since then, he has been a big player for the Gunners, being an ever present so far this campaign and missing just eight Premier League fixtures in total before being hit by his current injury.

He had missed just 57 minutes of football at the conclusion of the Norwich game – 12 of these when sent off against Chelsea and 45 in the North London derby when he was removed at half time due to illness. However, the fact Arsene Wenger decided to start him against Spurs shows the importance of Cazorla on the team and why the Arsenal manager will be devastated to be without his services for the next three to four months.

The Spaniard has been used to playing in an advanced midfield position but this year has been asked to play in a more generic central midfield role by Arsene Wenger, something that would not have come naturally to him. Despite this, his statistics make for impressive reading with the most passes per game of any player in the league – 12 more than Cesc Fabregas in second place – and his 2.6 ‘Key passes per game’ mean he is the only member of the top 10 in this category not to play in an attacking midfield role.

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Despite the attacking intent, Cazorla also boasts a 90.3% pass success rate. By virtue of his central role, Cazorla is seeing more of the ball, averaging 15 more passes per game than in any of his previous Premier League campaigns.

However, in the first 14 games of the season, Cazorla is yet to get himself on the score-sheet and averaging less shots per game than at any time during his Arsenal career. His lowest Premier League goal haul of 4 in the 2013/14 season was already appearing a long way off prior to injury, whilst the seven of last year and 12 in his debut campaign were almost certainly not going to be matched. Cazorla’s assist ratio is also lower than in previous seasons, raising questions about his best position and whether Arsene Wenger is misusing him in a deeper midfield role.

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Few would argue that Mesut Özil or Alexis Sanchez should lose their starting spots, but putting Cazorla alongside them would provide an attacking trio that very few in the world could match. Cazorla finished the 2014-15 Premier League season as the second highest assist provider behind Cesc Fabregas but has just three to his name so far this season, one of the main things that is lost by being played in a more withdrawn position. As is the case for most Spaniards, Cazorla’s vision and technique are fantastic attributes. His passing range; made all the more impressive by his adept use of both feet , helps to create opportunities for his team-mates but being positioned further back on the field makes this more difficult.

To his credit, Cazorla has adapted his game extremely well this season winning a greater number of tackles than in the previous two seasons and improving his successful take on percentage to 80. However, he has also committed more fouls and picked up more cautions than in previous campaigns; an occupational hazard of playing in central midfield. Cazorla also picked up the first red card of his Arsenal career against Chelsea meaning suspensions are more likely to come his way.

One the main reasons for Cazorla’s change in position is the range of options available to Wenger in his attacking positions compared to the limited choice in central midfield. However, Aaron Ramsey; a natural midfielder, has primarily been deployed on the right hand side of the attacking trio this season. Whilst Ramsey still has a lot to offer in this position, many of his best attributes are also lost, particularly his box to box running. Jordan Henderson suffered a similar problem during his first spell at Liverpool but has now developed into arguably England’s best central midfielder. Leaving Ramsey on the wing may be having a similarly detrimental effect.

The decision to move Cazorla into central midfield was a bold one by Wenger as such diminutive figures are not usually suited to such a role, particularly with the physical nature of the Premier League. Whilst the Spaniard has offered a lot to Arsenal in this role, he has lost some of his magic, as seen by the three goals scored for Spain so far this season compared to zero for the Gunners. On his return in March, Wenger may want to consider switching Cazorla and Ramsey to obtain the best from both players.


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