As Santi Cazorla this past week, once again, went under the knife to fix a relapse in his achilles injury, any remaining Gooner hopes of a late season title challenge were crushed. In contrast, Chelsea’s fortunes soared on Saturday with another seemingly routine win over Swansea. To be honest they could have been on the backfoot if Swansea was awarded a fairly obvious penalty midway the second-half but the PGMO decided otherwise. It is now fair to say that, barring a Liverpool-like implosion, they will win the 2016-17 premier league (PL) title. Despite my red tinted lens, that possibility does not even register on my telescope. As matters now stand City, Spurs, Arsenal, United and Liverpool are in a desperate battle for the other top-3 positions which will grant entry into the Champion’s League.
Despite my early optimism, especially after the club overcame a bad start and went on a 14 game unbeaten streak between August 20th and December 10th last year, amassing 33 points or a 2.35 points per game (ppg), I was less confident after Santi Cazorla pulled up lame at Ludogorets in the Champions League fixture and was ruled out of the following PL game with Middlesborough on October 22nd. Initially the club seem to manage well without the little midfield maestro, scraping draws with United and Spurs and banging West Ham 5-1 last November, but that was only flattering to deceive. The unbiased data always speaks the cold, hard truth. Seventeen (17) games in the PL without Santi and the ppg has fallen to 1.76, a mind-blowing 25% drop. Most striking, Arsenal was 1st place in the league Arsenal on October 20th, and today the club is battling for 4th with City.
In spite of the power and clarity of the data, we continue to have fake news or better yet fake analysis by pseudo experts in the mainstream media, blogs and podcasts pouring blame on Arsene Wenger for the recent run of bad results especially the heavy defeat to Bayern Munich in the Champions League. But at last there are a few in the mainstream media who now acknowledge what I have blogged on at least three (3) occasions over the past year, Santi Cazorla is the key to Arsenal and he is virtually irreplaceable.
First, on October 24, 2016 the Telegraph’s Charlie Eccleshare did a piece which had as its headline:
“Arsenal’s draw with Middlesbrough underlines why Santi Cazorla is the player Arsene Wenger cannot do without”
Later on December 2nd a follow-up by Eccleshare was published with another bold header:
“Santi Cazorla injury will derail Arsenal’s season – unless Arsene Wenger does something drastic”
Well the data is in and Arsenal’s season is badly off the tracks. Even though the Guardian’s Barney Ronay flowery language is often aimed at the literary cognoscenti, he was straight to the point:
“With Cazorla in the centre Arsenal are a different team. Mainly they’re a better one, his presence above all defensive and stabilising, a leadership role. This season Cazorla has started 10 games, with eight wins and two draws. Arsenal have kept five clean sheets with him in the team, compared with four in 20 League and Champions League games since his injury. In the last five years Arsenal have beaten Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham just once without their most resilient ball-hog in the team.”
It is noteworthy that Ronay identifies and recognizes something that many of us at Positively Arsenal, especially our friend When We Were Boring, have emphasized. Santi is the technical leader of this team. None of this abstract, data-free nonsense that the current team and players lack guts, which is simply the reactionary shibboleths of a past era when apparently Nobby Styles was the proof of leadership by emerging from games bloodied and toothless as if he had been in a 15 round boxing brawl (Readers who don’t know of Nobby, should Bing him up).
For those who so easily forget what Santi brings to the table in big games like Bayern, turn your minds to three-four months ago in Arsenal’s champion’s league game away to PSG. In the words of Ronay:
“Just as it is unlikely any English team will see a better all-round performance this season than Cazorla’s outflanking of that powerful Paris Saint-Germain midfield in the second half in Paris last September, scuttling about, holding the ball in tiny spaces and driving the game back Arsenal’s way like a plucky little snowspeeder patiently winding its guy rope around the legs of the imperial walkers.”
I quote these well published journos simply to affirm what I seem unable to sufficiently convey via the data; Santi is the key to the Arsenal way of playing and, at least for now, is irreplaceable. To the contrary, some of my friends at PA urge and I paraphrase: “Stop belabouring the point, Shotta, we have other midfielders who can compensate.”
Can they truly compensate? Recently I did an analysis of the season-to-date Squawka PL performance data of all the Arsenal midfielders and it was a revelation. To make it easy for mobile devices I will break the table in 2 parts.
Top-4 Avg Performance Score
|Avg Performance Score||27||25||22||18|
|Avg. Pass Accuracy||87%||91%||87%||82%|
|Avg. Pass Length||15m||16m||14m||17m|
|Avg. Chances Created||2.68||1.25||1.14||1.10|
|Avg. Goals Scored||0.23||0.25||0.14||0.10|
|Avg. Defensive Actions||1||2||1||1|
|Avg. Duels Won||53%||28%||55%||53%|
Bottom-4 Avg Performance Score
|Avg Performance Score||18||16||16||11|
|Avg. Pass Accuracy||89%||92%||88%||90%|
|Avg. Pass Length||18m||16m||15m||16m|
|Avg. Chances Created||0.84||0.25||0.62||0.83|
|Avg. Goals Scored||0.05||0||0||0|
|Avg. Defensive Actions||3||1||4||1|
|Avg. Duels Won||45%||42%||48%||52%|
I have already made the point in my last blog that Cazorla is our second best midfielder next to Ozil and is inferior in only one offensive statistic i.e. Chances Created, making him a huge loss as an attacker. In his absence the team is forced to rely Iwobi and Oxlade-Chamberlain as Attacking Midfielders. While Arsenal fans should be extremely happy with the development of both players, the stubborn fact is that at 87% and 82% Pass Completion respectively as well as inferior chance creation stats it is hardly likely they will trouble defenders in much the same way as Santi. Nevertheless they are young players with a high upside and in Arsene they have a manager who is infinitely capable of bringing the best out of them. The bottom-line is neither is really suited for a deep lying role thus the manager is relying on Xhaka, Elneny and Coquelin and Ramsey to perform this function. The fact that they as well as The Ox have sub 20 average performance scores is a telling statistic. Even more troubling is the most experienced in the lot is Aaron Ramsey, but he has had an injury plagued season and his average performance score is a measly 11. The data is compelling; Arsene may have 6 injury-free midfielders but he is starved of another quality attacking central midfielder. (Note to StatDNA and the scouts in planning for the 2017 transfer season.)
I am no tactical expert and I have no advice to give the manager. He, I am sure, is more aware than all of us of the scale of the challenge he faces and the experience to prevail. For example on February 7, 2015, Arsenal lost to Tottenham 2-1 and fell to 6th place in the league with only 42 points. In the next 14 matches the club went on a run of 10 wins, three draws and one loss to finish 3rd at 75 points. Switching Santi to that deeper role, in place of the injured Mikel Arteta, was the key to that revival. Surely Arsene will find another internal solution.