Santi Cazorla Is the Key to Arsenal's Late-Season Success

James DudkoFeatured ColumnistMarch 31, 2014

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 18:  Santi Cazorla of Arsenal in action during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Fulham at Emirates Stadium on January 18, 2014 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
Clive Mason/Getty Images

The key to Arsenal's hopes for late-season success is the form of Santi Cazorla. With the mercurial mini-marvel at his best, Arsenal can win the race for fourth place and capture the FA Cup.

Cazorla's impact was obvious during a superb second-half showing in the Gunners' creditable 1-1 draw with Manchester City. It was a performance the ex-Villarreal and Malaga man owed Arsenal after a series of indifferent displays throughout March.

Cazorla had been one of the players most guilty of surrendering to frustration during away defeats to Stoke City and Chelsea and a 2-2 draw with Swansea City.

But the 29-year-old proved his worth against City by improving every facet of the way Arsenal attacked. Cazorla had been swamped in the first half as the more confident and assured Citizens threatened to run riot.

But after the break, Cazorla led the charge as Arsenal pressed further forward as an attacking line. It was Cazorla, not City playmaker David Silva, hovering dangerously in pockets of space behind the striker.

Cazorla was in dominant mood against Manchester City.
Cazorla was in dominant mood against Manchester City.Kirsty Wigglesworth

That is where Cazorla does his best work, a reality that poses a dilemma for manager Arsene Wenger. While Cazorla has often operated in a false-11 role in both La Liga and North London, he is most effective in an Arsenal shirt when roaming the middle.

Of course, license to drift off the flank and into central positions still puts Cazorla in his favored areas. But playing wide also demands other duties from Cazorla, obligations that can take him off the ball.

Specifically, any role that begins with Cazorla starting wide commits him to doubling up with a full-back. That is necessary for balance when Arsenal attack and defend.

When he receives the ball on the flank, Cazorla is limited to recycling possession with the full-back. But he is a pass-and-move player who flourishes when executing one-two's and dictating intricate combination exchanges.

The problem Wenger has is that he has front-loaded his squad with similar central schemers. Signing Mesut Ozil last summer as good as guaranteed Cazorla staying wide.

While he has produced some good performances there, Cazorla is better when he sees more of the ball. Numbers from HITC Sport show how active Cazorla was against City:

Just like Ozil, Arsenal need Cazorla on the ball as much as possible. It's why a playmaker of his skill should be surrounded by a few more functional players to win possession for him.

Unlike Ozil, whose main value is adding a flourish at the tip of an attack, Cazorla is vital as a link player. He will drop a little deeper than Ozil and knit together the midfield and forward lines with his more active playing style.

Arsenal pass the ball with better progression when Cazorla dominates possession. That quality will be essential in the next two months.

Cazorla can make Arsenal more dangerous going forward in next Sunday's pivotal encounter at Everton. He can repeat the impact he had on last season's race for fourth.

It was Cazorla who provided a quartet of assists in a crucial 4-1 win over Wigan Athletic in the campaign's penultimate game.

Wenger needs the Spaniard to again torment the same opposition in the FA Cup semi-final.

With Ozil, Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere still sidelined, the Arsenal chief also needs Cazorla to be a central figure in the team's final league games.

If he is, then count on a successful end to the season for the Gunners.