After another year of poor showings in the European competitions, and with the star players of the last couple of seasons leaving for the La Liga giants, the criticism of the Premier League as a league has come from all directions; and it has been coming hard. Actually, it is becoming a little tedious.
However, some improved decision-making (Manchester City, Manchester United) and further development of existing sides (Chelsea, Arsenal) down the line, and the top Premier League teams – fueled by ever more ridiculous amounts of TV-money – will compete for the big international trophies again.
But if we return to this year’s edition, looking at the 2014-15 season as it is nearing its end, one sign of the small step down in quality is the lack of truly exceptional individual performances; big players winning big matches. In my mind, there has only been one such dominant performance this season – but what an effort that was: Santi Cazorla’s midfield masterclass for Arsenal in their 2-0 win away against Manchester City on the 18th of January. An all-round midfield performance by Cazorla – in one of the toughest games of the season – worthy of what his compatriot Xavi used to produce few years ago.
Of course, Cazorla’s performance was praised and highlighted after the game, but I cannot avoid the feeling that the sheer scale and range of what he treated us – and subjected his Man City counterparts – to, was never fully expressed in the coverage of the game, and perhaps not even completely understood.
Because the performance had everything, a masterclass in the whole range of midfield play.
Intelligent, high quality passing (with both feet) – holding on to possession at times, and hurting the Manchester City defence with vertical balls when the opportunity arose; luring in the opponents with quick, short passes and then moving the ball to a free space with precision.
Great individual technique, quick feet and balance, which – coupled with an always lively football brain – enabled Cazorla to evade opposition pressure and find solutions to tight situations with ease; not forgetting a very impressive defensive play for 90 minutes, mixing (somewhat surprisingly) bite and appetite in the tackle with tireless and tactically smart work without the ball, closing down opponents spaces and cutting their passing angles.
And that is before we mention those special moments and sequences, those that elevated his performance from a very good one to a great one. The most highlighted sequence post-game, was one from the second half which began with him winning the ball with a clean tackle by his own penalty box, before pirouetting away from Manchester City’s David Silva, riding the challenge from Frank Lampard with great balance, two-footing the onrushing Demichelis, and then dinking the ball past Fernando after showing him the other way with a little overstep; before finally losing control over the ball – having covered almost half the field and made four world-class opponents look rather silly in the process – and ending up himself tackling the ball out of play.
But there was also series of one-touch combination play, driving forward from defense to attack; visionary first-time flicks and back-heels, even a sombrero, opening up congested situations; no-look passes fooling City defenders and setting up teammates in good positions; quick feints and turns, showing one way with a shrug of the shoulder and going the other, staving off opponent pressure (whether in the centre of the field or in his own box) and holding on to the ball coolly until finding a free teammate.
And the small matter of one goal scored – from the penalty spot – and one assist with a fine set-piece delivery allowing Olivier Giroud to head home.
Take a look for yourself:
While Cazorla’s game at the Etihad had an unique quality to it, it was in no means an one-off. The Spaniard has consistently performed to a very high standard ever since moving from an attacking midfield role to a deeper more central position during the autumn, in partnership with Francis Coquelin in front of the Arsenal defence since December. The positional switch was initiated by Arsenal’s injury problems in the defensive midfield positions, and abundance of alternatives in Cazorla’s original position, but what is has done is created a role – and a level of responsibility for all parts of the team’s play – that has allowed Cazorla to take his own game to the next level, to the point where a return to his old position is now unthinkable.
Since that move, Cazorla has also managed to raise his performance level just a touch in almost all of Arsenal’s big matches. There were high quality performances from the Spaniard in wins against Liverpool in the league and Manchester United in the FA Cup, as well as the fact that he was, arguably, the only core player – together with midfield partner Coquelin – to reach an acceptable standard in Arsenal’s disastrous Champions League home defeat against Monaco.
Having voiced his criticism over individual awards in general (and the much-trumpeted Ballon d’Or in particular) the odds that Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger will lose sleep over the PFA Player of the Year Awards – Eden Hazard grabbing the prize, while, astonishingly, Santi Cazorla was neither nominated for the award, or voted into the Team of the Year – are probably not that high.
But, equally, as one of the most respected advocates for skilful and intelligent attacking football in the world, the baffling omission of his Spanish midfielder will probably irritate him just a fraction. Yes, the voting for the PFA prize is done absurdly early, which does not help Cazorla – so prominent in the second half of the season – as it took him a little while to find his role and form. So let’s wait and see what the football writers come up with, with their own awards by the end of the season.
Having said that, my skepticism regarding the coverage and understanding of Cazorla’s City performance, is matched at a more general level. Is there really an overall appreciation – within the game, the media, or at supporter level – worthy of the remarkable development Cazorla has undergone at the age of 30? Of his transition from a wonderful no 10 or winger, who could be criticized for not winning enough games for his team (in relation to his talent), to a lavishly gifted, intelligent and hard-working central midfielder capable of controlling games for his team, with that creativity in the final third still intact (his 7 goals and 8 assists in the Premier League so far this season is already better than his end product last year, for instance)?
The consensus seems to be that Chelsea starlet Eden Hazard was rightly awarded the title of PFA Player of the Year. Yes, the Belgian’s performance and development trajectory has been both impressive and exciting – and it would not surprise many if he is the one producing the great individual big-game performance next season.
But this year, only one player has combined that award-deserving mix of a general excellent standard of play and huge importance to all aspects of his team’s play, coupled with a truly iconic big-match winning performance:
Santi Cazorla, the player of the 2014-15 Premier League season.