The difference between Arsenal and last season's title may have been Santi Cazorla's LCL. As Scott French discovered, the Spaniard is primed to help the Gunners end their drought.
CULVER CITY, Calif. -- Arsenal was in the hunt for the English Premier League title most of last season, fading with a couple of months to go before a late surge claimed second place, the club’s best finish in more than a decade. The Gunners won 20 games but finished 10 points behind Leciester City, a result which may have been different had Santi Cazorla spent more time on the field.
The 31-year-old Spaniard watched most of the 2015-16 season from the sidelines after a November knee injury all but ended his season. One of the Gunners' most sublime creators since arriving from Malaga in 2012, Cazorla was limited to 15 league appearances last season. He still created more scoring chances (38) than every teammate except Mesut Özil and Alexis Sanchez.
Now Cazorla is back, healthy and ready to go, and if Arsene Wenger can figure out where to reinsert him, this could be the year Arsenal breaks through. It just might take a little time.
“He's our technical security in midfield, and we missed him five, maybe six months last year ...,” Wenger said after Cazorla made his first preseason appearance in the 3-1 win over Guadalajara on July 31 at StubHub Center. “He's not completely there on the fitness front … but by the end of August should be all right.”
Mr. Everything in the Middle
That would be huge for Arsenal. The diminutive Cazorla, perhaps 5-foot-4, is intensely inventive, with technical superiority on pretty much everybody on the field. He's had tremendous impact on the Gunners' game since arriving, playing a variety of spots before finding his best role as a deep-lying playmaker in midfield.
He and Frenchman Francis Coquelin, 25, built a strong partnership behind Özil two years ago, but Wenger has immense depth on the holding line, with Mohamed Elneny, Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere and Swiss newcomer Granit Xhaka contending for minutes.
Özil won't be ready for the opener after a late post-Euro 2016 break, so Cazorla has been playing as a No. 10 during preseason. He's comfortable there, but his ability to dictate play from a deeper spot seems more valuable.
“It's a different role, no?” Cazorla explained to FourFourTwo. “Because when you play behind the striker, you have a little bit more possibility to make a score, no?”
“Now it's different because it's another position. Maybe I am a little bit far (away from goal) to make a score, but I need to [make things smoother] for the team.”
Özil's presence, and that of Coquelin, a natural defensive midfielder, aids his ability to do so.
“It's too easy to play alongside them, no?” Cazorla said. “Mesut is one of the best players in the world. Coquelin is a young player, but he has a great future for Arsenal, for [France's] national team.”
Recapturing a lost season
Everything was humming nicely through the first three months of last season, with the Gunners flitting between second and fourth in the table, no more than two points off the lead. Cazorla went down on Nov. 29, suffering a torn lateral collateral ligament in his left knee, and it unquestionably impacted Arsenal’s bid for its first title since 2004.
It will be very difficult because there are a lot of great teams, but we have a good team. We are very confident
An Achilles problem in late February slowed his recovery, sidelining Zaorla until the last month of the season. On Friday against Norway’s Viking FK, Cazorla saw his first 90 minutes since November in Friday's 8-0 romp over Norway's, and he is eager for the new season to begin.
“We are very excited for the season. No, it's true,” Cazorla said. “It will be very difficult because there are a lot of great teams -- like Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City -- but we have a good team, we are very confident, and we want to start the league in the best form and start the league with a win against Liverpool, let's hope.”
Last year’s second place finish was Arsenal's best since finishing runner-up Chelsea 11 years earlier. Nonetheless, Cazorla termed it a “very disappointing” campaign, “because we had a great opportunity.” Arsenal won three Premier League titles in Wenger's first eight seasons but haven’t claimed first since, though the team’s never finished worse than fourth in Wenger’s 20 seasons in charge.
“It's never enough, no matter what,” Wenger said. “I personally believe that no matter what you do, it's never enough, and we have to give absolutely everything to [get] the best out of the team. ... We know what we have to do, because we were second last year, we had 18 teams behind us, but it's a big ask.
“When you look at the Premier League, every club is hugely ambitious, and when you look at the checks everybody signs [for top talent], it's quite scary. But that's what the Premier League is about at the moment.”
The world's finest players have been flocked to England for years, but now it's the marquee managers' league, too. Former Barcelona andBayern Munich boss Pep Guardiola has asumed command at Manchester City, Antonio Conte is following Italy’s fine Euro 2016 performance with a move to Chelsea, and Jose Mourinho taking the reins at Manchester United.
Wenger, following the victory over Guadalajara, called it “a little bit of 'world championship of managers,’ …”
“That makes it interesting as well, because all these managers come with big reputations and big trophies,” he told Yahoo! Sports. “But at the end of the day, we can talk all day, only one will win it.”
Cazorla sees Guardiola's and Conte's arrivals, and Jürgen Klopp's at Liverpool in the middle of last season, as the next step in the Premier League’s evolution.
“It's much better now [than when I joined Arsenal],” said Cazorla, who played nine seasons in La Liga, seven with Villarreal. “When I arrived it was a great league -- one of the best in the world -- but now it's a little better, because of the big coaches, like Mourinho and Pep Guardiola. It's a good thing for the league.”
It breeds uncommon competition. La Liga's football might be more beautiful, Serie A's more tactical, and the Bundesliga might be better at producing talent, but internal competition gives an edge to the Premier League.
“For me, [the EPL] is the more difficult [league],” Cazorla said. “I played in Spain before, many, many years. It's true it's difficult, but I think it's different because always win Barcelona, Real Madrid, maybe now Atletico [Madrid]. But in England, it's always difficult. Did you see we have example last season: Leicester [City] win the league! I think it's the most difficult league in the world.”
Arsenal has the foundation to contend, as it does every year, although Wenger would like greater depth at the back and another top forward. There are “still problems to sort out,” he admits, with his players well aware the small issues can have huge consequences.
“We need to improve, we need to improve. Because we need to be more rigorous,” Cazorla said. “I think (that) was the difference last season: We lost (too) many points at home. If we want to win the league, we cannot lose these games.”
Scott French is a reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJFrench.
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