Santi Cazorla is not an obvious captain. He is not much of a shouter or a fighter, not a disciplinarian, and rarely seen physically imposing himself on the enemy.
If Tony Adams and Patrick Vieira are the archetypes at Arsenal, providing models of captaincy that will last for generations, Cazorla is almost their antithesis.
On Sunday, though, with Mikel Arteta injured and Per Mertesacker rested, Cazorla wore the armband. And he provided his own form of leadership, directing the game from the middle, making both of Arsenal’s goals and keeping this afternoon as drama-free for his team as he possibly could.
The fact that this was at home against Middlesbrough does not diminish from it. Five days before Arsenal made far harder work of beating Leicester City here, just two positions ahead of Middlesbrough in the leagues. This was a superior performance, a display of control so complete it withdrew almost any tension from the occasion whatsoever.
The fact that it became so serene was, largely, the achievement of Cazorla. Arsene Wenger threw all of his available attacking firepower at Middlesbrough, hoping to break through Aitor Karanka’s massed ranks as quickly as possible. This was an ambitious 4-2-3-1, with Cazorla and Mathieu Flamini expected to carry the whole defensive weight of the team.
Arsenal 2 Middlesbrough 0 player ratings
Arsenal 2 Middlesbrough 0 player ratings
1/22 Wojciech Szczesny
Back in the side, the Polish stopper had little to do other than save from Adomah. 6
2/22 Calum Chambers
Impressive distribution throughout, he was always looking to start moves down the right. 7
3/22 Gabriel Paulista
Communicated well on his debut despite the language barrier although he was booked for a cynical foul on Reach. 7
4/22 Laurent Koscielny
Marshalled the Arsenal backline without trouble. 7
5/22 Kieran Gibbs
His pace allowed him to play much of the game high upfield where he was a constant menace for the visitors. 8
6/22 Mathieu Flamini
Did his job effectively in midfield - and without getting booked. 6
7/22 Alexis Sanchez
His pace, power and skill was a constant thorn in Middlesbrough's side until he was rested late on. 8
8/22 Santi Cazorla
Dictated the whole game from midfield with an array of clever touches, passes and off the ball movement. 9
9/22 Mesut Ozil
The German's creativity created numerous Arsenal chances. 8
10/22 Danny Welbeck
Demonstrated strength and trickery in attack, but often rushed his efforts at goal. 7
11/22 Olivier Giroud
Took his quickfire goals brilliantly in another strong performance. 9
12/22 Tomas Mejias
Made a number of eye-catching saves in both halves. 7
13/22 Ryan Fredericks
On loan from Tottenham, the 22-year-old was given a tough time on his return to North London. 5
14/22 Kenneth Omeruo
The Chelsea loanee stood up to the Arsenal attackers early on, but faded after conceding. 5
15/22 Ben Gibson
The young defender was given a tough evening, but remained determined throughout. 6
16/22 Adam Clayton
Sometimes struggled to track the runs of Sanchez, but cleared what would have been his own-goal off the line. 5
17/22 George Friend
Caught out of position on occasions. 5
18/22 Patrick Bamford
The forward was penned back by constant Arsenal possession and was eventually subbed. 5
19/22 Grant Leadbitter
The set-pieces of the midfielder had little effect. 5
20/22 Lee Tomlin
The burly playmaker saw little of the ball and failed to make an impact. 4
21/22 Albert Adomah
The midfielder made a number of bursting runs into the Arsenal box and was Middlesbrough's most threatening player. 6
Ineffective in both boxes until his stoppage time header struck the post. 5
Cazorla can do it, though, as everyone knows who has watched him this season. The story of Cazorla’s year has been the story of assuming new responsibility and rising to it. He has been, behind Alexis Sanchez, Arsenal’s second best player this season, providing a balance they have lacked in the past.
Last season was frustrating for Cazorla, as he was supplanted from the no 10 role by Mesut Ozil. Had there been a good offer for him last summer Arsenal might well have accepted it. He wanted a new role in this time but Wenger found him one, after the combined misfortune of injuries to Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey and Mikel Arteta, gutting Arsenal’s midfield for much of the season.
While Flamini and Tomas Rosicky have been used sparingly, Cazorla has been the man to take control, relishing the work that Wenger has asked him to do. He has stepped inside, finding a role from where he could pass and move, controlling the game from its heart rather than jealously drifting in from the wing.
“He is a team player, he works hard, with a good balance between attacking and defending,” Wenger explained earlier this month. “He is a better defender than people think, and he loves to do a job for the team.”
That is precisely what Cazorla did here yesterday afternoon, shutting down Middlesbrough’s attempts to counter-attack as well as directing Arsenal’s own manoeuvres. When Cazorla is good he plays with a chess-board vision of the pitch in front of him, spotting runs and passes that are not even obvious to everyone in the stands. It was clear from early on that he was looking for Kieran Gibbs’ bursts from left-back, the first attempt did not quite come off but the second was perfect, allowing Gibbs to make Giroud’s opener.
Cazorla has the complete range of passing, and the second goal owed to a brilliant diagonal out to Alexis Sanchez, which won the corner from which Giroud scored his second.
From there the match was won, and all Cazorla had to do was continue to play his natural game, showing the ball, moving it on, endlessly scurrying around in pursuit of the ball, in pursuit of space, the engine of the team and the captain of the ship, sailing comfortably through to the quarter-finals.
- More about: