We’ve all been there before.
We need new clothing. Maybe it’s a pair of slacks for the office or a suit for a formal gathering. We go to a store, identify some possible options and bring them into the changing room. Every so often there is a mirror in the room that almost takes on supernatural qualities. You look 10 pounds lighter with the complexion of an absolute god. The angle of this “slimming mirror” and the way the light shines makes you feel the way Oli Giroud or Cristiano Ronaldo do when admiring themselves in any reflective surface.
In short, you look glorious.
Santi Cazorla is the slimming mirror for Arsenal Football Club.
What he contributes to the club goes beyond statistics and his unique qualities have masked many of our deficiencies in recent years. The likes of Jack Wilshere, Francis Coquelin, and Aaron Ramsey have all had extended looks into the Cazorla mirror and looked better as a result. The entire squad takes on a more pleasing aesthetic when he is in the side.
Santi Cazorla is simply the oil that keeps the engine functioning well.
His on-pitch qualities are plentiful and obvious to the naked eye. Those who watch Santi often comment on the following attributes: two footedness, technical ability, close control, ball retention, and short to intermediate passing range.
He also embodies calm. When played to, you know he will retain possession and/or move us forward. He breaks the press in the midfield by either passing around the opposition or dribbling by. This is a massive reason our structural approach of a midfield two lacks consistency without him.
The attribute many overlook in regards to our little Spanish magician is his acute sense of spacial awareness. Santi’s brilliance stems from being an omnipresent, rotating hub that flows around its parts. He can get into withdrawn and advanced spaces depending on oppositional tactics and teammate tendencies.
Like Mesut Ozil can oftentimes see a few passes ahead, Santi sees the pattern of play unfolding around and gets into positions that benefit the team. He simply adapts to the team shape around him and adjusts himself accordingly.
I feel the best holding midfielders of our time did it a bit differently than Santi. The likes of Xavi, Kroos, Pirlo, Schweinsteiger, etc., are anchor-type midfielders. They excel at dictating play from deep with a clear team structural support around them. Their teammates generally rotate and move around them.
Let’s quickly examine our current midfield. Xhaka has Santi’s range of passing but not his positional awareness. Elneny has Santi’s ability to keep the ball ticking over and can find space but not his transitional progression. Coquelin has his short passing but not his ball retention. None of our midfield have Santi’s technical ability, close control, or ability to consistently break the press.
A huge reason the Coquelin/Cazorla partnership was so effective is because it was a partnership predicated on each other’s strengths. Coquelin excels at ball winning, reading the game, and quickly playing short passes to teammates. Santi was able to position himself to be in the best position to receive a short Coquelin pass after he won the ball back due to his innate awareness of space and ability to read the game. This dynamic is most sorely missed when we attempt to transition forward from deep midfield to advanced midfield in possession. [cont below]
The next time you enter that dressing room with the slimming mirror think of Santi Cazorla. The next time you watch a full match replay or if we are blessed to see Santi on the pitch next season, watch his spacial awareness both on and off the ball. Watch the “rotational hub” move into spaces for the betterment of the team. This is a footballer.