Was Santi Cazorla’s knee ligament injury the moment Arsenal’s title challenge was fatally torpedoed, even before they got to play United and Swansea?

It’s likely that few would have suspected it at the time.

As Matthew Wade points out here, the little Spaniard’s brilliance had just begun to dim a little at the time of his injury. However, as the weeks have become months, I think it’s become obvious that Santi was the key man in the style of football Arsène Wenger wants to see from his team. News that Santi is now suffering from tendonitis in his Achilles will have come as very unpleasant news indeed.

News that Santi is now suffering from tendonitis in his Achilles will have come as very unpleasant news indeed.

That said, Santi tweeted to say that he will be “ready” on the 1st April

Even my uncle Stephen (or “very angry unc” as he signed himself yesterday), a confirmed ‘well, he’s better than Arteta, but that’s not saying much’ Cazorla sceptic, has conceded that our team look a little lost without Santi in the engine room. Typically, this came at the end of an email exchange where Stephen pointed out that everything he has ever said about this Arsenal team this season has been borne out by the last couple of matches.

I can’t blame him for that, nor can I argue with it. I don’t particularly want to rake over the rubble of Sunday’s excuse of a performance in Manchester, or the more recent one just last night in our own back yard.

Coming back to the idea of the style of football we set out to play, I think it’s become glaringly obvious that there isn’t really a style of play. No plan. Arsenal, at the moment, seem like a team in name only, just eleven individuals passing the ball to each other in the hope that something will happen. At least, until Alexis gets hold of it and then decides to dribble down his umpteenth blind alley.

I am wary of offering a professional athlete anything that could be construed as advice. However, this slightly greying, slightly thickening late 30something, would like to say to our beloved Chilean: Alexis, mate, it’s okay to go round the outside from time to time. Just ask Malcolm McLaren…

Perhaps the lack of a plan was always the case when Cazorla was in the team, but given the combination of Cazorla, Alexis and the glorious Mesut Özil, we could usually find some way of making something happen. Indeed, one of the few bright spots this season has been the form of the German. He has gone from someone memorably described as “nicking a living” to being the reason we are still, just about, in the title race.

And we are still in it, you know. Leicester’s draw at home to West Brom shows that- of course, I am writing this before a couple of very dangerous looking fixtures for us; Swansea at home and then Spurs away. By the time you read this, it is entirely conceivable that we have ballsed it up against Swansea. But if we win and then we beat Spurs…? That’s not so inconceivable, is it?

Anyway, back to Santi Cazorla.

I wrote, a couple of months ago, about Mesut Özil being the key to Arsenal winning the title. In this piece, whilst highlighting the number of chances Mesut had created for his team mates, I ventured the opinion that it wasn’t really talking about who was second in terms of these numbers. Well, dear reader, it turns out it is very much worth talking about who has been our second most prolific chance creator.

With 36 chances created in 14 matches, Santi Cazorla was that man. With 36 chances created, four months after he last played, Santi is still that man. Mesut, by way of comparison, has gone from 83 to 111 chances created since that first week in January. In the interests of fairness, I should say that it is probable Alexis and, possibly, Aaron Ramsey will have overtaken Santi by the end of the Spurs game. Or maybe even by the time you read this. They stand on 35 and 31 chances created each. Ramsey, though, has played 23 games.

In the absence of Santi, it very much seems to be a case of, if you stop Özil, you have a more than fair chance of stopping Arsenal.

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Looking closer at the passing stats of the four players who have largely occupied the central midfield berths this season, I think there is a possible reason for our current malaise staring us in the face- perhaps Lewis Ambrose might call this confirmation bias, but I’m gonna give it a shot anyway… Santi Cazorla is someone who will, more often than not, try to get the ball forward. Data taken from Squawka shows that Santi has made 72.3% of 1,010 completed passes in a forward direction. In pure numbers, that’s 730 forward passes. Aaron Ramsey, on the other hand has only made 60.1% of 1,339 successful passes in a forward direction; giving him a total of 805.

Remember, though, Ramsey has played  in 9 more matches than the Spaniard.

Santi is actually not far off a successful pass for every minute he’s been on the pitch, completing 1,010 passes in 1,203 minutes at a 90% completion rate; whilst Ramsey has completed 1,339 passes in 2,037 minutes – 86% completion. That’s more like two passes completed every three minutes. Of course, these numbers could be slightly skewed by Aaron’s time on the flank.

I don’t want to turn this into a Cazorla v Ramsey argument, this piece wasn’t supposed to be about that. Although now he’s playing in Cazorla’s midfield position, the Welshman seems to have inherited Santi’s shooting boots. Once famed for his finishing, Ramsey’s 47% shooting accuracy is now not too far off Cazorla’s 41%!

No, the intention of this piece was to show how the loss of Cazorla has disrupted our ability to build our game and generate momentum. Just looking at Ramsey and Cazorla’s passing stats, we can see that we are less likely to keep the ball without Cazorla, we are also less likely to go forward with it – thus preventing the build up of momentum. This is before we even consider Cazorla’s ability to turn under pressure and dribble the ball up the pitch without Theoing it.

I mentioned four central midfielders earlier and then went off on a tangent. Mathieu Flamini and Francis Coquelin have also played in central midfield this season and whilst their passing completion is decent, 87% and 91% respectively, they are also not so keen to get the ball forward. Flamini will go forward with 67.3% of his passes and Coquelin, like Ramsey is down at 60% – well, 60.7% to be exact. Tip tap, tippy tap…

With Coquelin and Ramsey currently occupying the central midfield, is it any wonder that Sunday saw Mesut coming back into our half to get the ball from the centre backs? What a waste! Of course, neither Flamini or Coquelin are likely to Santi slalom their way through an opposition midfield either.

I wonder, too, about the effect of confidence on the team now. We have, to universal recognition, been struggling for months. In difficult times, the easy option can be most appealing. So, a pass sideways rather than forward; perhaps the forward that would have once made a run expecting that pass forward doesn’t make that run. So the next time one of the midfield looks up to play that pass forward and, because they’re not expecting the run, chooses not to. Net result: safety first passing and no penetration. No penetration, no real threat. No threat, no goals. No goals… well, you get the picture, I think.

I don’t think this is entirely down to Santi’s absence either. However, it is noticeable that the two midfielders in the squad most likely to replicate Cazorla’s guile and attacking intent, Jack Wilshere and Tomas Rosicky have both basically missed the entire season.

What’s the solution? Aaron Ramsey isn’t suddenly going to morph into a ball playing maestro, that isn’t his game. Despite his best efforts, it never was. But perhaps – not perhaps, definitely – need to start being a bit more adventurous with our passing. And our running. You don’t need this article to tell you that, in fairness. You’ve seen the evidence of your own eyes. He may be persona non grata for most Arsenal fans, but our own Helen Trantum has regularly complained that Theo’s forward runs are never ever looked for. That’s a problem. Effectively, we are voluntarily reducing ourselves to ten men most games. That’s stupid.

Leicester’s draw with West Brom has cracked the door open for this Arsenal team. As I type, we can still make a success of this strange, mostly underwhelming season. Let’s hope that is still the case by the time you’ve read this.