It’s been a mixed week for injured Spanish internationals at Arsenal. On Monday, it was announced that Hector Bellerin has signed a new mammoth six-and-a-half year contract, a huge boost considering the speedy defender was voted the Premier League’s best right-back last season.
On Tuesday, however, news broke that Santi Cazorla is likely to be sidelined until Christmas.
Cazorla’s latest setback was particularly poorly timed considering Arsenal’s performances in recent 1-1 draws against Tottenham and, in particular, Manchester United. Against Spurs, they lacked someone capable of providing what Mousa Dembele did for Tottenham, slaloming past challenges to beat the opposition press and dribbling forward into attack. Against United, they simply lacked guile deep in midfield — someone able to put his foot on the ball and provide quality service into the final third.
Cazorla covers both of those bases. Naturally an advanced playmaker who has retreated into a deeper role in recent times in part because of Mesut Ozil’s influence, he provides genuine creativity and authority in possession from deep. Without Cazorla, Arsenal are a very different side.
That’s not simply because Cazorla is such a difficult man to replace, but also because Arsenal’s deep central midfielders are entirely different beasts. With Jack Wilshere out on loan at Bournemouth, Arsenal’s other options in that role are primarily physical destroyers. Mohamed Elneny and Granit Xhaka have both been signed in the past 12 months, seemingly to provide competition for Francis Coquelin. But rather than mere competition for that one slot, it’s also been about the tactical option of playing the two of them together. Wenger has often elected for this approach in big games during the course of 2016 with mixed results.
It would be unfair to suggest that none of those three players can pass the ball. Xhaka is capable of excellent long diagonal passes and Elneny is a tidy player who impressed with his possession play at Basel, while Coquelin is a more rudimentary defensive midfielder who has unquestionably improved his distribution in the past 18 months. But these are predominantly holding midfielders rather than playmakers, tacklers rather than passers. They’re powerful units. In stark contrast, Cazorla is both the smallest and slowest (by his own admission, on the basis of Arsenal’s preseason sprint tests) at the club.
In a sense, using a physical duo is something of a throwback to the early Arsene Wenger years. His first Arsenal side retained the defensive unit of the George Graham days and the centre-forward duo of Dennis Bergkamp and Ian Wright, plus Ray Parlour on the right. Marc Overmars was signed for the left-wing slot — although Arsenal had been chasing him before Wenger’s arrival anyway.
Therefore, Wenger’s influence was most obvious in the centre of midfield, where he used his knowledge of French football to recruit first Patrick Vieira and then Emmanuel Petit. They weren’t simply scrappers; Vieira could charge forward into attack sporadically, while Petit played some wonderful passes over the top with his left foot. Nevertheless, they were about power, and they shielded the defence rather than providing goals and assists.
The emphasis on playing passers in deep positions came much later, with Cesc Fabregas — who was then pushed forward into a more advanced position — Denilson and Mikel Arteta.
Interestingly, Wenger has also been slightly reluctant to play Aaron Ramsey in one of the two deep midfield positions this season. The Welshman missed a few weeks through injury, so it’s difficult to be certain of Wenger’s intentions, But, when fit, Ramsey has been deployed on the wing — where he’s repeatedly said he’s not entirely comfortable — rather than in the middle, where he’s enjoyed his best spells with Arsenal.
This week’s home Champions League tie with Paris Saint-Germain — essentially a battle to see who wins the group — will be particularly interesting, because the French champions boast tremendous passing quality in deep positions. Holding midfielder Thiago Motta is very impressive on the ball, but the real jewel in the crown is the man who plays to his right: Marco Verratti. The little Italian is perhaps the purest deep playmaker in the Champions League’s post-Andrea Pirlo-and-Xavi era, a wonderful footballer who can conduct top-level matches with ease.
In Italy they called Verratti the “gufetto,” the little owl, because his head is always spinning from side to side when in possession, always checking for passing options. He sprays firm diagonal passes from flank to flank with tremendous ease, spreading play reliably and then moving into space to keep moves flowing. For all of the inevitable comparisons to Pirlo considering his nationality, his positioning is more akin to Xavi — to the right of a midfield trio, but dropping back almost level with the holding midfielder to collect possession.
He’s a tough player to close down, capable of advancing into positions where the opposition No. 10 doesn’t want to go and dropping into zones where central midfielders don’t want to follow him. He’s also benefited from the fact PSG generally play with two proper wingers this season, as Edinson Cavani, formerly an unhappy wide man, now leads the line after the departure of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The more PSG stretch the play, the more Verratti can show off his passing range.
It’s not all about those long passes, though. Verratti simply helps to put his team in charge of the game with short, reliable passes; casual one-twos with Motta and sideways balls to the full-backs. Defensively, he’s capable with a scrap, and collects rather too many bookings, but this is essentially a pure creator in a side that generally plays without a defined playmaker.
Perhaps Arsenal’s performance will improve and the combative nature of their central midfield duo will put them in command of the game. But the Gunners’ passing has been unusually sluggish in the past two matches. The Cazorla setback, and the presence of Verratti, might emphasize that even more.