Football is a man’s game.
So said Jose Mourinho in 2013 when responding to questions after Jon Obi Mikel more or less assaulted Mikel Arteta’s ankle.
Certainly Chelsea have a team of “men” given they are the team with the greatest average height, at 1.84m, and most successful sides have a decent proportion of the taller, weightier and more physical type of players.
So what about the “boys“?
Everton arrive at the Emirates this weekend as the opposite – the smallest team on average at 1.80m.
Arsenal don’t fare much better at a paltry 1.81m, with that average significantly weighted by the twin giants of Mertesacker and Sczcesny. However, while positions such as centre back and goalkeeper offer clear advantages for the taller players, there is still a place for the more petite footballer in today’s game.
Leighton Baines is the shortest of the Everton shorties, at 1.70m, but Arsenal actually boast two players even shorter – Santi Cazorla and Alexis Sanchez are both just 1.68m.
Given that both are having fantastic seasons, I thought it would be worth looking at how our two pint-size prodigies actually use their height to their advantage.
Santi Cazorla doesn’t look like a central midfielder.
Small and relatively lightweight, he looks like a player who would be too easily bullied, pushed off the ball and nullified, but that doesn’t take into account his exceptional balance.
A low centre of gravity and tiny little steps mean that the Spaniard has much faster reaction times than opposing players. This helps both when he wants to make a tackle, and, more importantly, when he wants to escape from one.
It has allowed him to develop his signature move – the Santi One-Two.
Anyone who has watched the Arsenal with any regularity will be familiar with the skill; it works just like a normal one-two, except that instead of the ball passing from one player to another and back again, in this instance it passes from one of Santi’s feet, to the other, and back again.
Of course there’s one other factor in play when Cazorla rolls out the Santi One-Two, and that’s his incredible level of two-footedness. He may not have bucket-loads of pace or showboating style skills, but his ability to play the ball equally with his left or his right peg means that he is entirely unpredictable.
The slightest bias towards one foot or the other can be detected, and ultimately give opposition defenders a clue, but Santi does not betray even a hint as to which is his stronger foot. One wonders on occasion if he even knows.
As a consequence, the usual hints to whether a player will pass or shoot, and when, or even which direction they will choose to turn or run don’t exist with Santi and it’s why his quality is shining through in his central midfield role, in spite of being about the same height as Thumbelina.
Until last summer, Santi was the shortest Arsenal player by a good four centimetres (Jack Wilshere is next, in case you were wondering), but then company arrived.
Who looks taller between Santi and new arrival Alexis Sanchez seems to be entirely determined by who has managed to stick their hair up more that morning.
Alexis doesn’t have the Spaniard’s same level of two-footedness, but he shares the same low centre of gravity and excellent balance.
For Alexis, this is put to greater use in terms of physicality. He uses it to throw his weight around a lot more than his teammate. Being much more solid close to the ground means he can knock larger players off the ball by getting his body positioning right.
He also uses his height as an advantage when dribbling, keeping low to the ground for ultimate balance, while taking the same tiny steps where required to keep the ball under close control and to change direction at will.
It all comes down smaller steps meaning less time in the air between them allowing quicker reactions to alter direction and speed.
It helps, of course, that our number 17 combines the benefits of smaller height with the leap of a salmon.
There was one memorable game early on in his Arsenal career when he was asked to play up front on his own and, despite giving away about a foot on the centre backs, his upper body strength allowed him to hold the ball up beautifully.
So then, two of Arsenal’s midget maestro’s are prospering, and they are far from alone.
THE TIDE IS TURNING
We’ve all heard the proclamations about the gap closing in North London, most recently from Ledley King, and see them for what they are – laughable.
However, when it comes to a move towards the importance of smaller players, the tide seems to be turning in a much more convincing way.
That’s not to say that teams are better off entirely comprised of short players. There will always need to be a core of taller and more physical players to deal with set pieces and, indeed, to profit from their attacking set pieces too, but increasingly we are seeing the top teams recognise the unique skills that shorter players can bring.
Table-topping Chelsea may have a huge reliance on physical presence at the back and, indeed, at centre forward, but their two best players this season are arguably Cesc Fabregas (1.75m) and Eden Hazard (1.73m).
Likewise their close-chasers Manchester City are hugely dependent on David Silva (1.70m) and Sergio Aguero (1.73m) to deliver their attacking threat.
Southampton are perhaps the exception to the rule in the European race, with just three regular players falling short of the six-foot margin and of course the tallest player in the league in the shape of Fraser Forster.
Further down the table, Tottenham look significantly more toothless without 1.75m Eriksen and Raheem Sterling has held Liverpool together at times despite his 1.70m height.
A NEW ERA
We are increasingly seeing a greater place for smaller players to provide their managers with a more balanced set of skills.
Clearly a whole team of shorties won’t work in this most physical of leagues. This is not the world that the likes of Barcelona play in, with the overprotection offered by referees of particular benefit to those of lesser physical stature.
However, the shorter players are often significantly better at close control dribbling and the more technical type of play. Given that most people who wind up being short as adults are usually short when growing up too, it’s likely that this smaller stature at youth level plays a part as it forces the players to focus on other ways to differentiate their play.
The real benefits are reaped at the top level when there is significantly more focus on technical skill to complement the brute physicality which is still required in certain positions. It’s no surprise that shorter players are now starting to have a real influence on the destination of trophies.
Arsenal are leading the charge to a certain extent, boasting two of the league’s shortest and most sparkling players in 2014-15.
They say good things come in small packages.
When it comes to Santi and Alexis, they are more than just good – they’re great.
A shortie @nellypop13