Arsenal have participated in two 1-3 scoreline games thus far this season. In their opening fixture the Gunners were on the wrong end of that scoreline and, I don't think I'm oversimplifying things when I say this, it was because Santi Cazorla was marginalized both by Arsene Wenger and by Aston Villa.
Cazorla was far and away Arsenal's best and most dangerous player last season. As he went, so to did the Gunners. Fortunately for Arsene Wenger Cazorla rarely had an off week last year and as a result Arsenal finished fourth in the league. This season, the return to full-fitness (or something that approximates it) of Jack Wilshire and the continued rise of Aaron Ramsey may have an interesting effect on Cazorla's role in the team. However, Arsenal can ill-afford to shunt Cazorla out to wide positions or to leave him out of the starting XI entirely.
Against Aston Villa, Cazorla came on at halftime for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and played wide on the right, occasionally cutting in to the center. Unfortunately for Cazorla, Aston Villa midfielder Karim El Ahmadi put together a brilliant performance and effectively blunted the impact that the little Spanish playmaker had on the match.
As you can see, none of Cazorla's passes ended up in the box and only one (the light-blue one) created a chance (via StatZone). Many of his passes where out on the right flank and were played either backwards or square. In short, Cazorla was, for whatever reason, not providing Arsenal with the sort of incisive passing that he usually does. Arsenal had 67% of the possession in this match, even though they played down a man for the final half hour of the match. Cazorla obviously had plenty of opportunities to get on the ball, so what was happening? Have a look for El Ahmadi's heat map for the second half in comparison with Cazorla's (via Squawka).
Heat map for El Ahmadi's second half
Cazorla's heat map
If I hadn't copied and pasted those two maps myself I'd think they were the same. Everywhere that Cazorla was, El Ahmadi was. It almost looks like he was specifically assigned to man mark Cazorla and prevent him from influencing the game. It wasn't that Cazorla was getting tackled all the time or anything like that. El Ahmadi was just limiting Cazorla's space and preventing him for getting involved.
So, what changed against Fulham? Obviously, Cazorla played from the start, but most importantly, he was played centrally as opposed to out wide. That, combined with Fulham's midfield pairing of Steve Sidwell and Scott Parker, meant that Cazorla had much more opportunities to get on the ball and create chances for his teammates.
Cazorla's passes in the attacking third against Fulham.
Cazorla's chances created against Fulham.
So in this match, not only was Cazorla able to get onto the ball and make lots of passes into the attacking third, but he was also able to make good incisive passes to allow his teammates to get off shots on goal. This is what Cazorla can do when he's given time on the ball and space to create. Next, we're going to look at Cazorla's heat map and that of Fulham's two "defensive midfielders.
Cazorla heat map against Fulham.
Scott Parker heat map against Arsenal.
Steve Sidwell heat map against Arsenal.
This certainly looks different from the previous match. Scott Parker, still being played as an all-action midfielder was very active in the middle of the park, but not in deeper areas where Cazorla seemed to live. Sidwell is supposed to be the more defensive of the two, but even he was no where near Cazorla for much of the match. What this meant was that Cazorla was able to drift into advantageous positions and make some cutting, incisive passes that helped set up Arsenal chances.
In order tog get something out of the North London Derby this weekend Tottenham will have to try to emulate Villa. Now, I don't mean this to sound rude, but Tottenham Hotspur have about 4 midfielders that are not only capable of doing what El Ahmadi did to Cazorla in that match, but doing it better. Spurs have Sandro, Mousa Dembele, Paulinho, and Etienne Capoue. Capoue, as we discussed yesterday, effectively limited Michu's impact on the match last weekend and he's certainly capable of doing that again. However, I can't imagine Andre Villas-Boas asking any of his players to man-mark Cazorla. What we are very likely to see is Capoue or Sandro sitting deep, just ahead of the defense just taking up space and making life difficult for Arsenal's dangerman.
Michu heat map vs. Tottenham
Capoue heat map vs. Swansea
Now, from this you can see that unlike El Ahmadi, Capoue is not strictly following Michu around the pitch, but the French destroyer is making quite often near Swansea's primary attacking player. As we discussed earlier this week, Capoue essentially negated any influence that Michu might have had on the match. He will be called on, I assume, to do much the same against Arsenal and Cazorla. If Capoue/Sandro can effectively shut down Cazorla, then Tottenham Hotspur will have a real chance of victory at the Emirates.