Santi Cazorla’s potential return to Arsenal in January may have started as a rumour in the nether regions of the internet, but there’s merit to giving the Spaniard a coaching role.
Perhaps talk of Cazorla calling the Emirates Stadium home again is exactly that. Just talk. Martin Odegaard had better hope otherwise because the gifted Norwegian needs some help. The type of help Cazorla can provide.
Specifically, the 38-year-old knows what it takes to adapt from creative wideman to central schemer, to deep-lying playmaker. He adopted all three guises during a prolific spell with Arsenal tragically cut short by injury.
Being productive in different roles has so far eluded Odegaard, whose game has become worryingly predictable at the start of 2023/24. A hip injury and concussion have kept him out of the lineup recently, but problems were obvious before then.
Problems Cazorla could fix.
Arsenal need Cazorla to fix Odegaard problem
The Odegaard problem is simple to define. Opponents know exactly where he’s going to be on the pitch: the right half-space.
It’s where Odegaard thrived during a free-scoring loan spell for Real Sociedad back in the 2019/20 campaign. As Sid Lowe of The Guardian put it:
"“Playing just to the right of the midfield or off the frontPlaying just to the right of the midfield or off the front, his season with Real Sociedad had been a revelation. Until lockdown, it would be no exaggeration to suggest he might have been the best player in Spain, full of energy and invention, the ball describing implausible angles and discovering spaces no one saw, passing through gaps that weren’t there.”"
The problem is the formula has gotten old since Odegaard took his game up another level at Arsenal. You can rinse and repeat Arsenal working the ball up the right flank before playing it into Odegaard and waiting for his deft touch or elegant flick to create a chance.
When those things work, the results are magic. When they don’t, Odegaard becomes a mere passenger. Like when he played just 28 passes from a mere 47 touches during the 2-2 derby draw with Tottenham in September.
Those paltry numbers were a far cry from the way Odegaard owned the ball during a 3-1 win over West Ham last Boxing Day, per Statman Dave.
Odegaard’s relative anonymity against Spurs saw him lose the playmaker’s battle to James Maddison. The latter only played one more pass than Odegaard, but Maddison used the ball more efficiently.
Maddison turned the game once he dropped deep, got on the ball more often and sprayed long passes out to the flanks. Meanwhile, Arsenal’s one-touch-and-hope Odegaard tactic proved more bust than boom.
Mikel Arteta needs to find a way to get Odegaard more involved. Asking Cazorla’s advice would be a good start.
Cazorla’s coaching can be the missing link for Odegaard
Cazorla has made no secret of his desire to return to Arsenal. He told the Daily Mail’s Daniel Matthews in November 2022: “Of course I would like to come back. I have to wait if the club thinks about me, if I can help in something – as a coach or a sporting director.”
Having Cazorla coach Odegaard on the need to be more versatile would benefit all parties. Cazorla could explain how he evolved his game in different roles.
The first of those roles was as a No. 10 in the 2012/13 season. Cazorla thrived, according to Josh Wright of WhoScored.com:
"‘Cazorla impressively reached double figures for both goals (12) and assists (11) – one of four players in the division to manage the feat. It didn’t take long for Cazorla to show just how devastating a passer he could be. He finished the season with 15 clear-cut chances to his name an an average of 2.6 key passes per 90 – both enough to claim top-10 rankings in the Premier League for each statistics. Not only that, but Cazorla completed at least 13 more accurate through balls than any other player (30).’"
A move to the left flank followed the next season after Mesut Ozil arrived to be Arsene Wenger’s ‘quarterback’ of choice. Yet, the real evolution in Cazorla’s game occurred in the following campaign when Wenger dropped the pocket-edition pass-master into a deeper role.
Playing alongside midfield minder Francis Coquelin, Cazorla had more freedom to roam in search of possession. The freedom was in stark contrast to Odegaard’s current limitation in the final third.
Cazorla’s goal and assist numbers declined, but he welcomed seeing more of the ball in withdrawn spaces, per Squawka Live.
Arsenal have been spoiled for choice with skilled, cerebral playmakers dictating passing all over the pitch. Cazorla was preceded by Cesc Fabregas, who took the mantle from Robert Pires.
The latter was a left winger in name only. That left flank was the purview of Thierry Henry and Ashley Cole, but all was right with the world when Pires tucked infield to own the ball under the protection of enforcers Patrick Vieira and Gilberto Silva.
Arteta should recreate the same formula with Odegaard, whose two-footed magic and natural vision aren’t being used enough so high up the pitch. Cazorla would show the skipper how to be effective in more ways for Arsenal.