03 January 2014

Arsenal v. Tottenham Player to Watch: Santi Cazorla

After fans voted Santi Cazorla as Arsenal's Player of the Year for 2012-13, the excitement around him grew, even more so after the signing of Mesut Özil. The prospect of the two of them working together was mouth-watering, so it's been a disappointment that they've haven't worked much magic together—yet. Of course, it's not going to happen Saturday against Spurs because Özil is out.

However, despite how little Cazorla has produced so far this season—just a goal and an assist from 21 appearances after delivering 12 goals and 11 assists in 47 appearances last season—he looks like he's ready to shake off the rust from his September ankle injury and fatigue from heavy international commitments in order to start thrilling fans again. In two of his last three appearances, against West Ham and again against Cardiff, he's started to show a liveliness that has previously been lacking, whether he was beating defenders off the dribble, threading key passes to teammates, or launching audacious shots from distance.

As we prepare for Saturday's clash, I envision Cazorla playing from the left. Aaron Lennon, not know for his defensive contributions, will likely leave Kyle Walker on his own frequently, and Cazorla should have chance after chance to beat Walker off the dribble, whether it's to set up his own shot or to find Podolski or another teammate off the dribble. For as quiet as his stats have been to this point, he's come close earning Man of the Match designations from whoscored.com, and I see tomorrow as his moment to shine. He's enjoyed success against Spurs in the past.

Back in September's 1-0 win over Spurs, though he finished the day without a goal or an assist, his play was vital in unlocking the Spurs' defense, which he did by drifting towards the center to overload the middle, challenging Spurs to adapt to his presence, and through constant through balls to teammates. In the first case, Cazorla should benefit from the less-defensive tendencies of Lennon and Dembélé (more of a forward by disposition and experience) to exploit one-on-ones with Walker or Chiriches, two tall but less-agile players who will struggle to stay in front of Cazorla. Further complicating matters at Spurs' end is that Etienne Capoué, arguably the most defensive of Spurs' remaining healthy midfielders, may find himself drawn from the left side to cover for the more-forward thinking Lennon and Dembélé, exposing the left flank of the defense to runs forward from Walcott and Sagna.

In the second, which flows from the first, Cazorla should be able to find space in manager Tim Sherwood's approach to defending, which is much more casual and less thorough-going than Villas-Boas's was. There will likely be a great deal of space between Spurs' midfield and back-four, especially as they flow forward more freely than previously. As such, Cazorla should find space to work into in order to make passes similar to the ones he sent time and time again through the Spurs' defense back in September. Whoever starts at center-forward, whether it's Podolski, Walcott, or, even, say, Akpom, he will likely receive all kinds of service from Cazorla.

This is all predicated, of course, on Cazorla getting a start. Arsène has vowed to treat this like a "top level Premier League game", which I hope means that Cazorla will indeed be in the starting XI. He may not have produced the goals and assists we'd expected when the season began, but tomorrow's as good a time as any to make up for lost time.