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Santi Cazorla Let Down by Arsene Wenger's Use of 4-2-3-1 at Arsenal

Jonathan Wilson@@jonawilsFeatured ColumnistFebruary 26, 2015

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 25:  Santi Cazorla of Arsenal runs with the ball during the UEFA Champions League round of 16, first leg match between Arsenal and Monaco at The Emirates Stadium on February 25, 2015 in London, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
Clive Mason/Getty Images

With his chipmunk grin, self-deprecating jokes about his lack of height and little scurrying legs, Santi Cazorla has become the player it’s impossible not to like. When Arsenal won 2-0 away at Manchester City in mid-January, apparently ushering in a new era for Arsene Wenger, one that involved tackling and defending and all manner of unfashionable notions, he was the standout player.

Cazorla scored a penalty and set up the other goal that day, completed 91.5 percent of his passes (according to WhoScored), but he also made two tackles, three interceptions and two clearances and blocked a shot. Here, at last, it seemed, was proof of what Wenger had always insisted, that skilful creators, properly deployed, could offer defensive security.

Fast forward five weeks, and it turned out the brave new world was pretty much like the old one. Francis Coquelin may be a better anchor than many assumed, but he is not a panacea, and nor is Cazorla, for all his effort and his toothy grins, necessarily a long-term solution as a midfield shuttler—or at least not in a 4-2-3-1.

That was sadly apparent in the 3-1 home defeat to Monaco on Wednesday, a game that seemed to distil pretty much everything that has gone wrong with Arsenal over the past decade. It’s not to single out Cazorla for blame, far from it: The issue is not him but how he is deployed, and that means the criticism must be aimed at Wenger.

Matt Dunham/Associated Press

Defending is not simply about packing men behind the ball. That’s relatively easy to do. Sitting deep, not breaking forward, letting the game unfold in front of you, focusing above all else on holding your position... it requires concentration and discipline but is, conceptually at least, a fairly simple matter.

Far harder is when you have to defend while still taking the game to the opposition. That requires judgement and experience, a sense of balance not to overcommit, always to be aware of potential dangers. Arsenal simply don’t have that, and Cazorla is the most glaring symptom.

Monaco are a tough team to play against. They’d conceded just two goals in 12 games before Wednesday night and strung a curtain of three holding players in front of the back four. They were there to restrict Arsenal and clearly would have been happy with a 0-0 draw. Arsenal seemed to intuit that and to interpret their early domination of possession as meaning Monaco would never attack.

When Danny Welbeck was dispossessed on the left seven minutes before half-time, there was a general sluggishness to shut down the mounting threat. In the end, Cazorla was forced to abandon Geoffrey Kondogbia to close down Joao Moutinho, who slipped the ball to his midfield partner.

He advanced into the space Cazorla had just vacated and hit the shot that deflected in off Per Mertesacker. This was misfortune about the goal, but it was avoidable misfortune: Kondogbia should never have had that kind of space.

Cazorla’s fault? No; the failings of others had left him in an impossible situation, but that’s the problem of playing all three of Welbeck, Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil, the problem of using a player who is essentially a scurrying creator to be a holding midfielder.

For the second and third Monaco goals, the back of midfield disappeared entirely: As Wenger acknowledged, the goals were “naive” to the point of being “suicidal.”

The really disturbing thing is that Cazorla was arguably Arsenal’s best player. He completed 93.5 percent of his passes, made three tackles, three interceptions and a clearance. He worked exceptionally hard. Yet it was not enough.

Two Cazorlas and Coquelin in a 4-3-3 would probably be effective; at City, Arsenal played a 4-3-3 with Aaron Ramsey joining Coquelin and Cazorla. But Cazorla lacks the positional instincts—and it wastes too much of what he is good at—to be effective in a 4-2-3-1, at least against top sides. 

It’s remarkable that he has been converted so effectively from a forward to a deeper-lying player, but the process has only gone so far.

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