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Given Arsenal’s recent form and goalscoring prowess, many believed Saturday’s encounter with Middlesbrough would be a forgone conclusion.
The Gunners, coming off a 6-0 victory in the Champions League against Ludogorets, came up against a Boro side that had failed to win in their last six games.
It looked an ominous task for Aitor Karanka’s men.
Instead, Arsenal were left frustrated, drawing 0-0 against a resilient Boro side. In fact, Arsenal were lucky not to lose the game, with Boro having excellent opportunities on numerous occasions that they failed to take.
The way that Adama Traore, in particular, cut through the Gunners’ defence would have given Wenger reason to be concerned.
Yet there was another aspect of his side’s performance at the Emirates that was the catalyst behind Arsenal drawing a blank for just the second time this season.
The Gunners had plenty of possession on Saturday, as is the case more often than not. However, the lack of penetration and creativity from Wenger’s side was something the Arsenal boss noted after the game.
“We had 75 per cent possession but we did not always have enough pace and enough sharpness in our movement,” he accepted. “There was not enough creativity today.”
The obvious reason why was the absence of Santi Cazorla.
It was clear on Saturday that the Gunners missed the incisive passing and equanimity on the ball that Cazorla provides.
The Spaniard was missing due to an Achilles injury and while his replacement, Mohammed Elneny, offered plenty of energy and strength, the lack of control and sharpness was there for all to see.
Cazorla’s importance to Arsenal has become increasingly paramount.
Since 2014/15, in the 25 league games without the 31 year-old, Arsenal have drawn 0-0 six times, with only a 40% win ratio.
In addition, since his arrival four years ago, Arsenal average 2.15 points per game over 85 league matches with Cazorla in the starting line-up, compared to the 1.63 points from the 38 he has not started.
Wenger knows only too well of the presence of the Spaniard.
“You always miss Cazorla at home,” he told reporters on Saturday. “From deep midfield into the final third his pass is always quick, accurate. I don’t really know when he will be back. We have to see how he recovers on Monday.”
The influence of Cazorla was perfectly demonstrated in Arsenal’s recent 3-0 victory over Chelsea.
He was the top passer of the match with 74, as well as completing 30 passes in the attacking third, only second to teammate Mesut Ozil (34).
And while the Gunners’ front four took a lot of credit, it was Cazorla’s quick, precise passing that was the catalyst in getting his team off to the flyer that they did.
Cazorla’s absence on Saturday also had an effect on Ozil.
The German has often benefitted from receiving the ball in areas where he is most effective due to Cazorla’s vision.
This was evident during the Arsenal’s 4-1 win away at Hull in September, when Ozil received the ball from the Spaniard 28 times – the best pass combination from an Arsenal duo this season.
There was only going to be one outcome as a result – goals.
This was a stark contrast to Saturday, where the highest Arsenal pass combination was 18 between Elneny and Shkodran Mustafi. Therefore, the lack of fluidity and sharpness in the home side’s passing made it difficult to break down a stubborn Middlesbrough side.
Consequently, Arsenal were reduced to putting crosses into the box, and without target man Olivier Giroud, that tactic proved ineffective also.
Among the Premier League’s finest
Cazorla’s stats also rank among the best in the Premier League this season.
He ranks third best in terms of the highest average passers in the league (70), as well as currently having a 91.3% pass success rate – the best from any Premier League player who has played more than five matches this campaign.
Too important for the Gunners
In short, Arsenal need Santi Cazorla.
And while it seems extraordinary that Arsenal have not offered the 31 year-old a new contract, a more short-term priority should be getting Cazorla back to full fitness as soon as possible.
It could be critical to the outcome of a pivotal season for Arsenal and Arsene Wenger.
Written by Sean Wilson
Follow Sean on Twitter @WilsonFC2012
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