I have had a sporting crush on Maxime Gonalons for five years now. I first started writing about him and how I’d like to see him at Arsenal back in 2012. In the years since, he has stayed loyal to Lyon and at 27 years old is their inspirational captain and leader. Instead of buying Gonalons in 2012, Wenger snapped up a player who is in many ways his opposite, Santi Cazorla.
What I like about Gonalons is that he’s one of the best players in the world passing the ball, he’s big and physical and hard to knock off the ball, and he is quick to recover and win the ball back for his team. He plays in the deep lying midfield role and organizes the Lyon attack and defense from that position, picking out line-breaking passes, sweeping long balls to switch the point of attack, getting out of tight pressure with a deft dribble, and when Lyon lose possession, mopping up.
Cazorla came to Arsenal at a time when Arsenal had just undergone a major change in midfield. Arteta had been brought in to take over for Cesc Fabregas in the main creative role. He was played next to Alex Song in 2011/12 who was supposed to be the deeper of the two midfielders but who actually found a surprising partnership with Robin van Persie and created 11 assists that season. For reasons that will remain under Wenger’s magic cap, Song was sold and Cazorla brought in to take over the creative attacking midfield role, and Arteta was asked to step back into the organizing midfielder position.
Cazorla scored 12 goals and laid on 11 assists that season in the advanced attacking role. The freedom suited him and in his best performance of the season he scored a hat trick against Reading. After, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain said “It’s a pleasure for anyone to get to play with a player like Santi. You can give him the ball in tight situations and you can trust him to get out of them and create things.”
That summer, Arsenal bought Mesut Özil and suddenly, Arsene Wenger had to find a new home for Cazorla. This uncertainty in Arsenal’s midfield abounded for a year and a half. As Arteta started to age, Wenger tried multiple combinations in midfield. Sometimes, Ramsey in the middle, sometimes Cazorla with Arteta. Arteta and Flamini. Until suddenly in January 2015, he hit upon the midfield that worked: Coquelin and Cazorla.
Coquelin isn’t a refined passer, in fact he’s often overlooked by teammates in the build-up, but he’s quick and tough and has a nose for closing down opposition attacks. So much so that former Arsenal great, Thierry Henry called him “the policeman.”
Cazorla’s job was to organize the midfield: find a pass up field first, if given space take it, if closed down break the press. The two of them worked fantastically well together. Their partnership in midfield allowed Özil to flourish and the German had his best season for Arsenal, providing 19 assists as Arsenal climbed to the top of the Premier League and challenged for the title.
But then Cazorla got injured and has essentially remained injured for the best part of the last two seasons. And Wenger has been back to flailing around looking for combinations in midfield that provide the grit needed to defend and the flair needed to attack.
This summer Wenger bought a guy I consider to be sort of like Gonalons in Granit Xhaka. Xhaka has all of Gonalons passing range and if given time and space in Arsenal’s backfield he can play passes that skip straight through an entire defense. But Xhaka has flaws, he can’t really carry the ball forward, and because he lacks dribbling ability, he needs players to help him break a press. And in the defensive phase his recovery pace and positioning often leave him lunging to get back into the game.
This is why Arsenal need a midfielder next to Xhaka who can help organize play in the defensive phase by herding the opposition players, and in the offensive escape pressure with a dribble. Coquelin does the defensive part of that very well. Ramsey provides great movement but can’t break pressure with a dribble and his defending is poor, he’s another Arsenal player who lunges into tackles late. Elneny is another great passer and his movement is outstanding but he struggles with tackling and dribbling. It’s only Cazorla, who is never going to be a great tackler but puts in the work while also moving Arsenal forward in midfield, does all of the movement that Elneny and Ramsey provide to his teammates, and who understand how to press in midfield. Cazorla is the guy!
Some suggest that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is the natural replacement for Cazorla. He has played just twice in that position and while the initial stats look good, he is averaging 4.5 dribbles per game, the deeper we dig into those matches the more we see that most of his dribbles were attacking down the wings and not breaking pressure in midfield. Worse, he still has a huge problem with ball retention and averages two dispossessed per match while playing as a nominal center mid, and his interceptions numbers are basically non-existent with just 1.
Ox is also not an adept passer (yet). His short passes are fine but his long passes, which are crucial for a deep midfielder, are just 56%. Gonalons averages 70%. And Ox has yet to connect on an accurate cross when playing in CM, going 0/3. So, while Ox does seem to offer the dribbling ability of Cazorla and that is a tremendous asset, he lacks the precision passing that Cazorla brings to the table. Maybe he can develop his passing? Though, he’s been playing now for eight seasons as a professional footballer, and six seasons under the development of Arsene Wenger who is supposed to be the coaching equivalent of a passing guru. If he was going to pick up tremendous technical passing ability, my guess is he would have already done so.
Another current Arsenal player who many would immediately point to as the guy to take over the Cazorla role is Jack Wilshere. Wilshere is getting plenty of playing time for Bournemouth this season and what is undeniable is that he’s still got his dribbling shoes on. Making 2.5 dribbles per game, Wilshere is right up there with Alexis, Aguero, and Sterling among the top dribblers in the League. Wilshere also offers through balls and creates shots for his teammates. But Wilshere is an awful defender. Don’t @ me with the stuff about how he played DM for England. He filled in the circle where “DM” was supposed to be but he averaged 0.7 tackles per game. Wilshere currently averages less than a tackle a game (0.8) at Bournemouth and is actually more prone to be dribbled past (0.9) than to successfully win the ball back. Cazorla is no great defensive wall but in his prime, playing alongside Coquelin, he averaged more than double the tackles (1.9) what Wilshere averages. Wilshere also doesn’t intercept the ball. In 21 appearances for Bournemouth he has 8 interceptions.
There are players out there who can deliver on all of the skills needed to play in a two-man midfield for Arsenal. But it’s not like these guys are unknown. Thiago Alcantara would be absolutely perfect as a replacement for Cazorla. You are already aware of his attacking threat but he also averages 2.7 tackles per game (with just 0.5 was dribbled) and a career high 4.2 interceptions per game. But how on earth is Arsenal going to convince Alcantara to leave Bayern? Money. Lots of money. Probably a record transfer and record salary.
And with Alcantara, you also have to ask whether Xhaka would be the right player to play with him. Alcantara completes 80% of his long passes, takes a lot of corners for Bayern (and creates 0.4 shots per game off corners), he can tackle, he can intercept, he can dribble. If you buy Alcantara, don’t you then play Coquelin next to him?
The other obvious candidate is Naby Keita. He is a little bit of everything in a center mid. And Wenger tried to sign Keita this summer, going so far as to make a personal call but, as is the case with a long line of young prospects, Keita chose to play somewhere else.
There are a lot of players out there who can dribble, or who are tidy with the ball in midfield, players who can make a decisive final pass, players who can tackle and defend well. But what made Cazorla so special for Arsenal was that he did all of that. There are precious few players in the world who can fill Cazorla’s huge boots. Alcantara is one of them but my guess is that Wenger isn’t going to buy Alcantara. The amount of money needed to bring in a player of that quality and pedigree would be astonishing. Arsenal have the money but to see it actually used would be a surprise.
The good news is that Wenger is looking. His call to Keita is proof that the old boss still knows what he wants. We saw this before with Arsenal’s pursuit of a big center mid like Xhaka. It took three years of rejections before we finally landed a players. And as is the case with Wenger, he is willing to wait and make due until he can get in the quality and type of player he wants.
And yes, I do think Wenger signs a four year deal this summer.