Things are looking up this Summer at the Arsenal; Alexandre Lacazette recently became the club’s record signing and various reports from Chile hint at star man Alexis Sanchez remaining a part of Arsene Wenger’s squad for next season.
Alongside this are the continued reports linking the likes of Riyad Mahrez, Thomas Lemar and Kylian Mbappe to the club, with Mesut Ozil’s recent renewal of his Emirates Stadium box brightening the N5 skies that little bit more.
But news breaking early on Tuesday morning brought many Gooners back down to earth as a key midfielder received another long-term injury setback.
No not Jack Wilshere, but Spanish starlet Santi Cazorla; who missed seven months of last season with an ankle injury which required extensive surgery.
The news proves another big blow for Arsenal who are statistically a much more effective side going forward when the 32-year-old is on the team sheet.
Between the start of the 2014/15 season and the date of his injury in October last year, Arsenal won 65.5% of their games with the Spaniard in the side.
Without, that percentage dropped to 38.9%, perhaps providing a reason for Arsenal’s lowest finish since 1996 at the end of the current campaign.
In terms of points, these percentages were relative to 2.1 per match with Cazorla, compared to a mere 1.6 without him.
So this news, if found true, proves to be a sickening setback for Arsene Wenger; who must now explore alternative solutions.
Options within the current Squad
It cannot be forgotten that Arsenal went on to win the FA Cup last season, without Santi Cazorla playing any part in their 2016/17 cup run.
And whilst the Gunners did not face the most testing of opposition – with all due respect to likes to Preston North End, Southampton, Sutton and Lincoln – until the semi-finals, it becomes clear that Arsene Wenger had options in Cazorla’s absence.
The main name that stands out in terms of other attacking options is, of course, Mesut Ozil, but many fear the absence of the Spaniard alongside him negatively affect his game.
There are stats to back this claim up; of the nine games the two started together during the 2016/17 season in all competitions, Arsenal held an 89% win rate, with the only dropped points coming in a 1-1 draw away to Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League.
Arsene Wenger himself noted how the German had “suffered” following the loss of Santi Cazorla to injury last season.
“He suffered a lot from the loss of Santi Cazorla,” said the Arsenal boss. “Because Cazorla in deep midfield can get out of pressure, get the ball played through to a player who is higher up and then Ozil is a player who, with the timing of the pass, with the ball at the right moment, he can always do damage.”
Last season, in the 490 minutes Ozil played with Cazorla, the German playmaker had 88.9 touches of the ball per 90 minutes, scoring 3 goals.
Between Cazorla’s injury and the beginning of March last season, Mesut Ozil played 1376 minutes but only had 81.1 touches of the ball per 90 minutes, scoring just the two goals.
Of course, Arsenal have plenty of midfield options that could help to fill the Cazorla void and subsequently aid Ozil’s attacking play.
Aaron Ramsey relished his new role in Arsenal’s 3-4-3 formation at the end of last season; his cup final winner epitomising such a change in fortunes.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain also provides an example of a player who has flourished within the Gunners’ new system, with the 23-year-old admitting he favours a central midfield role.
“Playing for a team like Arsenal, it ends up being more of a right-wing job,” Oxlade-Chamberlain told BT Sport following the FA Cup Final.
“I get the ball from deeper and that plays into my hands more. But the centre-mid role…I’ve always wanted to be Steven Gerrard, so I’ve still got a hope of that!”
But recent figures suggest this position may only be a hope for the Englishman; during England’s 2-1 defeat to France last month the Arsenal man played just 18 passes in the first half and only found a man with 61.6% of these – the lowest success rate in the side.
Arsene Wenger remains confident though that this will be Oxlade-Chamberlain’s future role: “In the future, the long term, he will play in central midfield.
“What he is doing at the moment [at wing-back] will help him to be a successful central midfielder as well. But at the moment I feel that this wing-back role has suited him well.”
However, if his performance in that area of the field for England – alongside reports of him rejecting a take-it-or-leave-it contract from Arsenal – are anything to go by then Wenger is still in need of further options.
The other midfielders at the club, whilst defensively are perfect for the central role, fail to engage in the attacking side of the play like Cazorla does.
Last season, despite playing at least 6 games less, Santi Cazorla completed more forward passes per 90 minutes (56.36) than Granit Xhaka, Mohamed Elneny and Francis Coquelin.
As well as producing more forward passes (1.17 per 90 metrics) than Xhaka (1.16), Elneny (0.39) and Coquelin (0.76), and contributing more assists (0.29 per 90 compared to 0.07, 0.13 and 0 respectively).
During the opening three months of last season, Santi Cazorla also scored more goals (2) and created a greater amount of chances (1.45 per 90 minutes) in comparison to the other Arsenal trio.
The only other option that avoids Wenger looking elsewhere is the issue of Jack Wilshere, who following treatment on a fractured left fibula could still form part of the plans at the Emirates next season.
Wilshere managed just shy of 2000 minutes of football last season whilst on loan at Bournemouth; his best return since the 2010-11 season.
And when comparing the Englishman’s stats to Cazorla, the results are relatively more balanced than those registered by Xhaka, Elneny and Coquelin.
Whilst Cazorla produced more forward passes (56.36 per 90 minutes) than Jack Wilshere (28.30), the Bournemouth loanee managed a greater number of chances created (1.60 per 90 minutes) and provided more key passes (1.50).
Where Wilshere falls short, however, is through goals and assists; despite playing 19 fewer games than his Arsenal teammate, Cazorla registered the same number of assists (2) and scored more goals (2 goals over Wilshere’s 0).
So the issue still remains; who will Arsene Wenger use to fill the void left by his little Spaniard? Will he be forced to dip into his pocket?
Arsenal are blessed with having a multitude of choices available to them in midfield, from the attacking exploits of Alexis Sanchez to the tough tackling Granit Xhaka.
Having said this Santi Cazorla holds a separate role to any of Arsenal’s other midfielders – the role of a deep-lying midfield playmaker – which is why his absence has affected them domestically in recent years.
Because of this Wenger may be forced to look elsewhere to replace the role the Spaniard holds in his side, with the following players providing options for the Gunners boss:
NOTE – the following prices are estimates based on findings by ‘Transfer Markt’
Marco Verratti – 24 years old – Paris Saint-Germain – Italy – £38.25 million
PSG’s Italian midfielder Marco Verratti is one of the most obvious replacements for Santi Cazorla available in Europe.
The 24-year-old holds the exact role Cazorla does in the current Arsenal team; allowing his side to build from the back whilst also taking a moment to slow down the play, waiting for the right option ahead of him.
The Independent noted that the ability of a midfielder to do both is rare, but Verratti is a natural at it; alongside the likes of Sanchez, Ozil and Lacazette, the Italian would flourish.
Last season the central midfielder gained a greater attacking score in his respective league (18.95) than Cazorla (18.75), as well as producing more total forward passes per 90 minutes (66.34) than the Spaniard (56.36).
Verratti also comes out on top with more chances created (1.68 compared to 1.46 per 90 minutes) and more key passes (1.47 per 90 metrics) than Santi Cazorla (1.17).
The Italian has recently called for a move away from the French capital, meaning he would be available to Arsenal this summer if they chose to peruse him.
But the stumbling block for Arsene Wenger with this transfer is the interest Barcelona hold in the player, with a 100 million Euro bid said to be ready on the table from the Catalonian giants.
Dani Ceballos – 20 years old – Real Betis – Spanish – £8.5 million
A much cheaper alternative to Arsene Wenger comes in the form of Real Betis midfielder Dani Ceballos, who holds a buyout clause of only 15 million Euros.
Being tipped as the next Andres Iniesta, the young Spaniard won all the plaudits at the recent European Under-21 Championship, earning the Most Valuable Player award in Poland.
The stats sing his praises too; last season Ceballos and Cazorla were level on chances created per 90 minutes (1.46) but the Betis midfielder came out on top in terms of key passes (1.38 per 90 minutes).
In La Liga, Ceballos achieved an 80.8% passing accuracy rating and was renowned for his ability to hold onto the ball and dribble past opponents.
But once again Barcelona are interested, as they look to replacements for the ageing Iniesta and aim to rival Real Madrid when it comes to the young talent within their ranks.
And despite his exploits for Spain’s Under 21s this summer, Ceballos will be a risky pick for Wenger with an evident lack of big game experience other than against the likes of Barca, Real and Atleti.
Piotr Zielinski – 23 years old – Napoli – Polish – £17 million
A possible replacement Arsene Wenger will be aware of is Napoli’s Polish midfielder Piotr Zielinski; reports from The Daily Star suggest Arsenal have already scouted the 23-year-old, indicating an interest.
His inaugural season in Italy has been a revolution as far as Napoli are concerned, with three goals and six assists in the first 1200 minutes of his time there.
Zielinski has also been praised for his no-nonsense defending, alongside his eye for a key pass in tight areas; something which makes him the perfect midfield partner for someone like Xhaka or Elneny.
In his respective league last season, Zielinski achieved a greater attacking score (20.93) than Cazorla (18.75) and created more chances per 90 minutes (1.84).
Not to mention a greater number of key passes per 90 metrics (1.50) and more assists a game too (0.34 per 90 minutes over Cazorla’s 0.29).
The issue with this player comes in the form of his contract; Zielinski is currently entering the second year of a new five-year contract at Napoli, meaning only big money would lure him away from Italy.
Liverpool are also big fans of the Pole, and with Champions League at their disposal may hold a greater temptation than Arsenal to lure the player away.
Miralem Pjanic – 27 years old – Juventus – Bosnian – £34 million
One name that continues to be linked with Arsenal is that of Miralem Pjanic, with reports in January suggesting he was ready to ‘start a new chapter’ at the Emirates.
The 27-year-old only joined Juventus last summer, however, many reports have suggested he was unsettled despite a string of impressive performances.
In fact, when compared to Santi Cazorla, his stats suggest few signs of a discomfort during his first season for the Old Lady.
The Bosnia-Herzegovina international gained a greater attack score per 90 minutes (22.10) than Arsenal’s Spaniard (18.75), alongside a far superior key pass total (2.12 per 90 over 1.17).
Something which puts the 27-year-old over many other names on Arsenal’s radar is undoubtedly his Champions League experience; an 84% passing completion rate in the competition last year highlights his worth in high profile games.
Like Cazorla, Pjanic also is known for his free-kick abilities, scoring six direct set pieces in two Serie A seasons – for Roma and Juve respectively.
Like Zielinski, however, Pjanic is currently entering the second of his 5-year contract at a new club, and with his reputation internationally a hefty price tag is sure to be attached to his name.
Leon Goretzka – 22 years old – FC Schalke – German – £19.55 million
Another name that has been linked with N5 this summer is Schalke’s Leon Goretzka, and at 22-years-old you can see why.
A former teammate of Arsenal’s first summer signing Sead Kolasinac, Goretzka is one of the brightest young names in world football and is incredibly versatile.
Whilst fitting into Cazorla’s deep-lying central midfield role would not form a problem for the German, he is also capable of playing as an attacking midfielder, a winger and a full back.
And with his contract set to run out at the end of next year, Arsene Wenger could do much worse than to bid a respectable amount for the youngster this summer.
Whilst he is not as developed a player compared to likes of Verratti or Pjanic, Goretzka has shown promise this season, particularly during the Confederations Cup where he scored a competition-high of three goals for the Germans.
But the Gunners may have to wait to get their man, with the Schalke CEO Christian Heidel stating he: “can’t imagine a scenario in which [Schalke] agree to a summer move.”
Honourable but unlikely mentions
There were several other names which sprang to mind when thinking of possible Santi Cazorla replacements; notably RB Leipzig’s Naby Keita and Nice’s Jean Michael Seri.
Both enjoyed superb seasons for their respective clubs, with pundits noting their abilities to not only retrieve possession but also move play forward.
The reason they did not get greater mentions in this piece concerns their availability; Keita looks increasingly likely to join Liverpool whilst Roma have reportedly agreed a 5-year deal for Michael Seri.
Overall Santi Cazorla’s importance to Arsenal and Arsene Wenger can never be ignored, with his absence this season providing the clear evidence for such a fact.
But with another injury set back on the horizon the time may have come for the Gunners to look for replacements.