Arsenal recently confirmed midfielder Santi Cazorla had left the club at the end of his contract this summer, but there is now a deep chasm that needs filling. The 33-year-old was the quintessential deep-lying playmaker who could retain possession and turn defence into attack with ease.
His off-the-ball movement, speed of thought, ambidexterity, creativity and quick feet made him impossible to tackle and a key player for Arsenal. When he was prevalent in the side, the Gunners were a comfortable top-four side in the Premier League, but they’ve greatly struggled in his absence.
Cazorla contributed 60 goals in 129 Premier League games for Arsenal before his departure. He scored and created a near-equal amount, all the while pulling the strings in midfield and ensuring the Gunners had an outlet to play the ball out the back. It’s not until he picked up his serious achilles injury in 2016 that supporters realised how much he did on the pitch, which is why he’s been so hard to replace.
Jack Wilshere is the closest player to Cazorla in the Arsenal squad, but his goal output is considerably poor for somebody who deems themselves a playmaker. The English international operates in the final third of the pitch but seldom scores or make an assist. His inconsistency this season led to Gareth Southgate leaving him out of the 2018 World Cup squad, so he’s clearly not on Cazorla’s level. And neither is his teammate from Switzerland.
Granit Xhaka joined Arsenal from Borussia Monchengladbach with the reputation as a combative midfielder who dictates possession and creates chances from deep-lying positions. His debut season saw him make mistakes leading to goals and it wasn’t until 2017/18 that supporters saw some progress with the 25-year-old.
However, Xhaka hasn’t come close to reproducing what Cazorla did for Arsenal. The Swiss international has a great range of passing, but too often he’s found wanting in the middle of the park – either as a result of relinquishing possession cheaply or due to being caught high up the pitch.
Arsenal’s impending manager Unai Emery reportedly has plans to make Aaron Ramsey the focal point of the side next season. With Mesut Ozil in the squad, it’s unlikely the Welsh international will play a more advanced playmaker role, but he may be moulded into a central midfielder who relies on his passing more than his industry.
Ramsey is a box-to-box threat who doesn’t mind doing the dirty work in defence while still boasting a good eye for goal at the other end – evident from the 27-year-old averaging a tackle or interception every 31 minutes, while scoring and creating 15 goals in 21 league starts.
He hasn’t developed a wide range of passing like Cazorla had, however, completing only three crosses and five through balls.
Emery could make Ramsey an even more rounded midfielder with positional discipline and situation awareness next season. His deal with the Gunners expires in 12 months, but the Welsh international is expected to extend his stay. Wilshere, however, could be on his way out.