At the start of the season just gone by, Arsenal once again looked like title contenders. Santi Cazorla was pulling the strings in midfield; Alexis Sanchez was firing on all cylinders; and Mesut Özil appeared to be dominating matches time and time again. Once again, however, their excellent start to the season was too good to be true.
Cazorla suffered an ankle injury in October which was initially thought to be minor. It is now two months since the season ended and the Gunners’ medical staff have failed even to give a realistic date for his return. The 32-year-old was the provider of the incisive passes from which clear-cut chances were birthed last season. His absence has resulted in a dissonance which couldn’t be rectified by any midfielder within the club’s ranks.
After a string of disappointing results which saw Arsenal fall out of the top four, Arsène Wenger went back to the drawing board. It was here that he decided upon his 3-4-2-1 magic formula. The new system provided the missing defensive security when Aaron Ramsey chose to surge forward, and also got the best out of Granit Xhaka, who struggled to find his feet in the old formation.
They won nine out of their ten games with the new formation, winning their thirteenth FA Cup in the process. A crucial part of building on the success brought about by this new system is adding to the midfield depth, especially with the awful injury records of Jack Wilshere, Santi Cazorla and even Aaron Ramsey. Wenger might easily want a player who can allow the team to roll back to the 4-2-3-1 system smoothly when they need to add an extra attacking threat against defensive opposition.
Five Potential Santi Cazorla Replacements
Ross Barkley (Everton)
Santi Cazorla started his career as a winger, before playing most of his career as an attacking midfielder and finally shifting into a deeper midfield role. Barkley could follow suit by dropping back into central midfield from his current attacking midfield station, and he certainly possesses the attributes to do so.
Like Cazorla, Barkley is an excellent dribbler, although he relies on his pace and power to burst away from opponents as opposed to the Spaniard, who uses his low centre of gravity alongside his agility and quick feet to make opponents look silly. The 23-year-old is competent on the ball but lacks the precision that Cazorla does and has a propensity to attempt overly ambitious long-range passes. But under a talent developing master like Wenger, he could simplify his game for the better.
Leon Goretzka (Schalke)
Goretzka has emerged as the figurehead of the new-look Mannschaft. The Confederations Cup stage was perfectly set for him to show the world what he’s made of. He used his intelligent movement and ruthless finishing to score three goals for Germany; his country’s joint top scorer with RB Leipzig’s Timo Werner.
The 22-year-old is a nightmare for every opposition defence, and never hesitates in his defensive duties. He makes good use of his physicality to push players off the ball and shield it well. He’s also excellent on the ball and his good range of passing helps link up play between defence and attack.
His playing style perfectly fits the criteria Arsenal’s new 3-4-2-1 system needs. His direct running and finishing abilities could see him emulate Aaron Ramsey’s strongest performances for the club.
Pablo Fornals (Malaga)
When thinking of a like-to-like replacement for Cazorla, Fornals is one of the few young names who comes to mind. The versatile midfielder has shown capability of playing anywhere in midfield. He has already played holding the centre as a ‘6’, further forward in midfield as an ‘8’ and also just behind the striker as a roaming ‘10’.
His direct running, all round game, and eye for goal suggest that he can comfortably inherit a deeper midfield role. He has already been handed his full international debut by Spain boss Julen Lopetegui, who clearly rates the 21-year-old.
It is reported that Arsenal already sent scouts to watch the player, who certainly will be flattered to join their sizeable Spanish continent of Hector Bellerin, Nacho Monreal, Lucas Perez and, of course, Cazorla.
Wylan Cyprien (Nice)
Monaco players aside, Cyprien was last season’s breakthrough star in Ligue 1 after stepping up a division by moving from RC Lens to Nice last summer and adapting seamlessly. The box-to-box maestro played a pivotal role in his side’s surge to the top of the table, and their title challenge took a hit when he suffered a season-ending injury in March.
On the ball, Cyprien can be unstoppable, combining lung-busting stamina with pace, power and exceptional technique, achieving a take-on success rate of 88% last season. His close control gives him the edge Arsenal lacked dealing with teams pressing them in Cazorla’s absence. Moreover, he is an extremely accomplished passer of the ball. If he reaches full recovery from his knee injury, he’d offer the needed quality and depth to Arsenal’s midfield.
Thomas Lemar (AS Monaco)
Even by Monaco’s brilliant standards, Lemar managed to stand out as a truly thrilling performer. He was devastating and daring on the left hand side of Leonardo Jardim’s system; so much so that a glimpse of thought about changing his position must be kept at bay.
The first thing that stands out about Lemar is his exceptional positioning. His ability to cut inside and let his creativity lead the way was the key trait sparking his team’s attacking movements.
Starting his career as a midfielder has honed the player’s ability to hit the right notes in central positions. He was capable of answering his manager’s call to play as a central midfielder against Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League. He was a nightmare for the opposition defenders. Considering Wenger’s record at successfully changing his players’ positions, there’s no reason not to expect the young Frenchman to have great success in a central role in the future should he sign.