What is common between a human body and a football team? A heart, yes. While for humans it is a muscle that pumps blood, for a team it is a player, usually a midfielder, who keeps the pass counter ticking. A player of that ilk is usually very rare to find. Chelsea experienced that themselves as they struggled to get a passing maestro in their powerful midfield all these years. Arsenal on the other hand, have quite a reputation for being a team that relies on its pass to death approach. And it is rather unsurprising that a player, once an Arsenal fan favourite, is now pulling strings for Chelsea in their midfield.
Chelsea’s search for a deep lying playmaker is very well documented. Their pursuit of Luka Modric, where they ended up offering £40M plus Alex in exchange for the diminutive Croatian, only to be rejected, showed how desperate they were for a player who could effectively link attack to defence. A player of that flavour, Cesc Fabregas, was on sale in the summer window and Chelsea duly snapped him up. It later emerged that Arsenal had the first option on the player they sold to Barcelona which they refused to exercise, citing an overabundance of like for like options. Fabregas, once hated by the Blues, became a Blue, and soon a fan favourite. Oh, how fickle we fans are!
In 2011, Arsenal were chasing Juan Mata, and when the Spaniard chose Chelsea instead, they opted to bring in Santi Cazorla. Cazorla has had his ups and downs in an Arsenal shirt, but this season, he has won over all of the Gunners’ faithful. He was always a player who creates a lot of chances, but this season he has really chipped in with the goals as well. If Arsenal are at such a comfortable position and mathematically still in the title race, a lot of credit has to go to Cazorla. Despite having Sanchez and Giroud score majority of their goals, Arsenal have seen for themselves the value that Cazorla’s crucial goals bring.
Fabregas has had a terrific first season in his second spell in London. He is the runaway chance creator and assist magnet in the Premier League. He has not managed to overcome his recurring loss of form in the second half of the season, but despite the recent slump he has been contributing well to Chelsea as they sit comfortable atop the PL table. In the first half of the season, Chelsea were playing the most attractive in the division and coincidentally that is the period Fabregas was really in form. Chelsea reverted to their usual policy of sitting back and grinding out narrow victories once he lost his assisting touch and that is possible the clearest testament of how crucial an in-form Fabregas is for the Blues.
Cazorla has not always been the most consistent contributor. He has been forced to play out wide and in central midfield at times, rather than in his preferred number ten role. However, the injuries in the squad have led to him been given more chances in behind the forward. In a more central role he is at his best as he doesn’t need to defend, which he has to on the flanks. He is also very good on the ball, pinging it around and linking the play, something he has done well as his chances created demonstrate.
Cazorla’s importance has been well documented by the fact that despite Mesut Ozil’s return from injury, and slow return to form, he has been preferred to play in the number ten role. While Ozil has been out of form for most of the time since becoming Arsenal’s record signing, and Sanchez went off the boil after his initial sparkling run, Cazorla has been consistent throughout the season. With Coquelin now providing solidity in the centre of the Gunners’ midfield, Cazorla has even more freedom than he used to have earlier.
When he was signed, Fabregas’ defensive ability was doubted. He was not a Mourinho player, they said. A player who could defend, tackle, put the effort in with the ball lost. But he has transformed into exactly that kind of a player this season. Yes, he is best as a passing metronome, but he has done the dirty work whenever required this season, as shown by the nine bookings he has already gathered this season.
It is rather moot to compare whether Fabregas is a better player or Cazorla. It is rather telling that while Cesc has faded off in recent weeks, Santi has been going strong. But if I’m looking for a player to create magic out of nothing and get my team a chance, I will turn to Fabregas every day. It is also rather telling that, over at Chelsea Index, when a Blue and a Gunner sat down together to pick a combined XI, Cazorla missed out to Fabregas. But who has the greater influence on their side in their new roles, Sunday’s game will tell.