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Santi Cazorla Absence Demonstrates Spain Star's Importance to Arsenal

James McNicholas@@jamesmcnicholasFeatured ColumnistNovember 8, 2016

Santi Cazorla will spend the international break hoping to get fit.
Santi Cazorla will spend the international break hoping to get fit.Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

The international break seems to be particularly well-timed for Arsenal. That's partially because of the nature of their last match—a dispiriting 1-1 draw with neighbours Tottenham Hotspur. Given the form of the respective clubs, Arsenal would have hoped to win that one, but they instead looked short of sharpness and creativity.

The two-week break gives them time to reflect and recuperate—and, crucially, it could allow Santi Cazorla to be ready to return to action.

Arsenal return to face another huge fixture. On November 19, they travel to Old Trafford to play Jose Mourinho's Manchester United. Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, who has never recorded a competitive victory over Mourinho, will be desperate to get a positive return in that game—especially having dropped two points against Spurs. 

Speaking as far back as October 28, Wenger admitted to Metro's Mark Brus that his team feels Cazorla's absence keenly:

When Santi is out, we miss the pass from deep midfield to high midfield, security on the ball, getting out of pressure. When we are getting closed down, he gets you out of tight situations and creates openings for the team.

The Gunners certainly missed him against Tottenham. Spurs sat relatively deep, employing a back three and crowding out Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil. Wenger selected Granit Xhaka and Francis Coquelin at the base of his midfield, and while both players performed well individually, Arsenal didn't have the craft to forge many clear goalscoring opportunities.

Aaron Ramsey was introduced in the second half to try and force the issue, but still, Spurs' defensive setup held strong.

Cazorla would surely have provided them with greater tests. Even when he starts in a deeper role, he is able to pick his way between opposition lines with a combination of nimble footwork and accurate passing.

What makes him so important is that he is unique within the Arsenal squad. Xhaka has a similar range of passing, but he is not as agile as the Spaniard. He is often one-footed and has a wide turning circle, meaning he can be susceptible to focused pressing. Press the ambidextrous Cazorla, and he's capable of swivelling swiftly in either direction before slaloming through the opposition midfield. He can escape from any situation, enabling the Gunners to launch counters from deep.

Santi Cazorla's dribbling ability makes him valuable to Arsenal.
Santi Cazorla's dribbling ability makes him valuable to Arsenal.Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Coquelin is certainly a better ball-winner, but he cannot match Cazorla's ambition in possession. The same is true of Mohamed Elneny—although he is a highly effective continuity player, helping Arsenal control the tempo of games with his metronomic passing, he doesn't have the same imagination to his play that Cazorla does. 

As for Ramsey, his desire to make things happen makes him a potential match-winner. However, he lacks the element of control that's so important to Cazorla's game. The Spaniard is a conductor, whereas Ramsey is more of a soloist. 

There's no-one quite like Cazorla. The one Arsenal player whose quick footwork and probing passing is most comparable to Cazorla's is currently wearing a Bournemouth shirt. Jack Wilshere's desire for regular football saw him leave the club on loan. Without either player, Arsenal aren't quite the same side. 

Cazorla has such an important role when it comes to instigating Arsenal's attacking moves. He picks up the ball from the back four, and his first thought is to play a forward pass. When Cazorla is playing, Ozil is invariably more influential—his diminutive team-mate has a helpful habit of finding his feet early. With Cazorla, Arsenal have more verticality to their game.

In the longer term, Wenger must come up with a way for Arsenal to cope without Cazorla. He isn't getting any younger, and there are other players who demand regular first-team football in central midfield. Ramsey is the obvious one—although he can perform on the flanks, it's no great secret that he would rather play through the middle.

Speaking about Ramsey's deployment, according to arsenal.com, Wenger stated the following:

I just consider the next game and try to find the balance with the players to be in a position where they can give their best for the team. Aaron Ramsey has come back from 11 weeks injury you know, he has to come back, you do not come back [and have that] magic. It takes time but he can bring us his strengths in every single position - wide or central. He prefers to play central, to be central, and I can understand that. But when he plays wide he has enough freedom to be central as well.

Be that as it may, Ramsey will have his eyes firmly set on a central berth. The signing of Xhaka was seemingly one made with that transition in mind, as the Swiss midfielder looks like a natural foil for Ramsey.

Arsenal's new No. 8 had some of his best performances for the club alongside Mikel Arteta, and there are obvious comparisons to be drawn between Xhaka and the former Everton man. Both are cultured playmakers with an appetite for the physical side of the game, and both have positional intelligence, which makes them an obvious complement for Ramsey's marauding style.

At present, it seems there is no room for both Aaron Ramsey and Santi Cazorla in the centre of Arsenal's midfield.
At present, it seems there is no room for both Aaron Ramsey and Santi Cazorla in the centre of Arsenal's midfield.Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Whether Ramsey and Cazorla could function as a partnership remains to be seen. Wenger has experimented with it on one or two occasions, but there's no player in that combination with inherent defensive attributes. Even for a coach as attack-minded as Wenger, that might prove too cavalier.

Right now, Cazorla is simply too important to be cast aside. Age may be encroaching—he turns 32 next month—but his performances are not suffering. Wenger and his medical team will surely spend the next two weeks doing all they can to ready him for Old Trafford.

If the last few weeks have proved anything, it's that Arsenal are still reliant on their twinkle-toed Spanish genius. If he's fit when Premier League action resumes, then the midfield matador is guaranteed a place in the Gunners XI.

    

James McNicholas is Bleacher Report's lead Arsenal correspondent and will be following the club from a London base throughout 2016/17. Follow him on Twitter here.