The Evolution Of Santi Cazorla
Spines Come In All Shapes And Sizes
I like Gary Neville. He is the best pundit of his type. But he’s very much from the Manchester United school of football. Which is fine.
Neville sees the world like (an enlightened) United fullback, 1992 vintage. Still, he’s interesting and he really likes Arsenal and Arsene. Genuinely. It’s just that he doesn’t always “get” Arsenal and Arsene. But that’s ok too. How could he?
Asked at the close of last season what Arsenal needed to do to truly compete, Neville went for the old cliché…a strong spine like Chelsea is what they need: Courtois, Terry, Matic and Costa. Ah, the spine thing, that elusive concept. I mean, it makes sense that your players down the center are all top level. And it fits the narrative of the strong, resolute team falling back on it’s grit in the long winter months when their skills no longer hold sway.
Let’s look at Arsenal’s spine:
- Arsenal signed Cech – a great start to your spine. A veritable coccyx of a player.
- Centerbacks of Per plus Koscielny and/or Gabriel (to be fair, Terry or any other CB would have his hands full playing the Arsenal way ie a high line one minute/lying deep the next, but I digress)
- Our Matic is Coquelin (thank God it’s not Matic)
- Our Costa is a combination of Walcott and Alexis
Are these good enough? Are they spiney enough?
Did Pires add to our spine? Ashley Cole? What was the greatest-of-all-time-Barca spine?
Too many names for a spine but how do you leave any name out?
How essential, even central, was Hazard and Cesc to Chelsea? And Chelsea used a highly structured formation. With Barca, and with Arsenal, fluidity is more “central” to their approach. Does the spine thing still mean the same for these teams, I wonder?
We play with 2 sitting midfielders who play complimentary roles – Coquelin and Cazorla. And very often Cazorla is the deeper of the 2, bringing the ball out when we’re in possession, absorbing the pressure and the press and receiving the tackles.
So, where am I going with all this? If there is something to this spine thing, is Neville questioning Coquelin, or is he questioning Cazorla? Or is it both? He certainly dismissed them both as inadequate to win a title. But it seems to be Cazorla he has the most trouble with.
A Gauntlet Thrown Down
Before the United game on Sunday, Neville was asked what team talk he’d give to United. Again he, to my mind at least, identified Cazorla as the weak link: He spoke first of Theo’s threat in behind, (smart fellow,) and then of going after Cazorla, (because, you know, Cazorla. He’s short? He’s funny looking? A Danny Devito of a midfielder?) A familiar theme you will recall from his rant against Arsene’s flimsy midfields where he dismissed Cazorla and Coquelin as being almost comic figures, no real explanation proffered: Players who were sufficient to flatter occasionally or even frequently but, come on, let’s be serious…not man enough to muscle their way through a season of tough matches against tough sides…like United?
He talked of how impressive United were defensively, the best in the league. He added that they are as good as you will see in how they move and cover defensively.
Neville also recently described Arsenal as arrogant for how they approached matches, especially against big teams, and specifically because they don’t set up to first neutralize their opponent’s strengths. Arsenal think that playing their best football should be enough. Now, this would be an area Neville is an expert in, to be fair. He built a career on it. On the other hand, to be fair to Arsenal, plenty of Arsenal players have stated in recent times that we do study and plan for specific teams. Most recently Cech expounded on how much they prepare. But maybe it is still not to the degree that Neville demands. And here Neville and Wenger will simply have to disagree to disagree.
It is for this self same reason, this conventional thinking, that a club like United spent a load of dosh on a man whose very name strikes fear into the Sudetenland…BASTIAN SCHWEINSTEIGER. Gather the spittle from the four corners of your mouth and say the name. It thunders of its own accord. It Donners as it Blitzens. Schweinsteiger dares you to say his name aloud and not shit your pants. He dares you to type his name and not shit your pants..
And while we’re busy shuddering, and shitting, let us shudder at the thought of facing Michael Carrick, son of Zeus, daughter of Poseidon, weaned at the teat of a she-wolf in the 7 foot-hills of Rome, then placed in a basket by Moses’ mum on the River Nile, which was odd, now only descending from the heavens for match days when the celestial beings can bear to part with him. His stats say everything: When Michael Carrick does not play, United only have a winning percentage of 31%. But…when he does…their win percentage…is…117%. So, like, we’re basically fucked if he starts.
The Die Is Cast. Alea Iacta Est. Louis van Gaal Crosses The Rubicon.
Many questioned the folly of Louis van Gaal’s approach, using Schweinsteiger and Carrick. But United have been dominating with possession and passing, and he stated before showing up to the Emirates that it was their intention to come and win and announce their bona fide championship-winning credentials. And so he selected his best possession-passers. For LvG to start Schneiderlin would have been an admission of Arsenal’s superiority.
The Evolution Of Santi Cazorla
Shall we speak of spine now? Shall we talk seriously of spine? For I have rarely seen more spine shown by any central midfielder than our ex-winger come number 10 come deep-lying playmaking when he isn’t tackling intercepting masterminding counter-attacking and charging the 6 yard box because it’s payback time Santi Cazorla. He was simply fucking awesome. And he was mean. Mean and intense. Mean, intense and brooding. And when we declared, and sat back to defend and say, “OK United, show us you can break us down,” he was the most intense and brooding, focused and relentless of any player on the field.
For me, this was Cazorla’s best match as a deep-lying mid if only for the intensity, focus and leadership he brought. He was both imperious and impervious. He no longer thinks he’s just visiting or helping out back there for a spell, doing a great job for a winger. He owned the job on Sunday. He took to heart the lessons of Olympiakos and beyond to produce a definitive “over my dead body” performance.
And one other thing: Santi and Coquelin are no longer just complimentary, taking turns. They now use each other to get out of tricky spots, they find each other. They trust. It is the evolution of Santi Cazorla.
When I grow up I want to be Santi Cazorla when he grows up.
Neville would never have sent Arsenal out as Wenger did on Sunday. There is apparently more than one way to skin a cat. When Arsene skins a cat, it sits up to applaud the knife-work…before its heart gives out.
Here was Neville’s verdict after the match: Manchester United were “shell-shocked. It didn’t look like they were prepared for Arsenal’s strengths.” It looked like Manchester United “were set up to GO for Arsenal.” They started on the front foot. But Schweinsteiger, Carrick and Rooney got “out-played, out-numbered, out-fought, everything you would want in a midfield.” The United midfield got “dismantled in that first half and their two fullbacks got exposed.” He then waxed lyrical about Arsenal’s performance.
It seems fitting to hear it from the great Manchester United pundit. Perhaps Neville will be proved right in the end but for now, and since January…Bravo, Santi Cazorla. Bravo!