At the age of 35, it isn’t a common theme to see a scout report involving a 35-year-old. However, this instance is a special one as the resurgence of Santi Cazorla has been a remarkable one. Easily one of the best players in a struggling Villarreal side who sit eighth in the La Liga table Cazorla has been able to find and display the type of football that all Arsenal fans saw and fell in love with before injuries ruined the latter stages of his time there.
This tactical analysis aims to articulate how Cazorla has been so effective this season and what he does in particular that makes him such a wonderful player to watch. With the postponement of the Euros it may be a reach but could he possibly bow out with a final major tournament appearance next year? Continuing on this trajectory may well point him towards that honour.
Role in the team
Villarreal has favoured a 4-1-4-1 formation for the majority of their games this season. Followed secondly by 4-4-2. Cazorla, as shown in the image below, has operated on the left-hand side of the pitch.
As seen on the heat map above the majority of the positions that Cazorla take up come from the left-hand side in slightly an advanced position. His role in the team often alters going from a deep-lying playmaker to an attacking midfielder.
Often paired with the defensive-minded Vincente Iborra and the industrial Manu Trigueros the workload isn’t heavily placed on Cazorla to destroy the opposition attacks or to necessarily win back possession.
Cazorla’s role in the team is to quickly recycle the ball into open spaces. Either through his elite range of passing which stands at a success rate of 86.7%, but the impressive stat is the accuracy of long-range passes. 72.7% of his long-range passes in the league have been accurate. Showcasing his ability to read the game and find the open man when given time on the ball.
Use of space
A constant set up in tactics for the Villarreal side is to quickly advance the ball up the field centrally to then exploit the open spaces for the pace out wide. As soon as the ball moves out from the defenders, players always seem to try and play through Cazorla, who always seems to be available on that left-hand side of the pitch.
His spatial awareness allows him to get away from his markers and receive the ball with time to plan his next move. However, the genius of Cazorla lies with the fact whether he has pressure on him or not he already knows before the ball is received to feet what he wants to do with the ball.
On the half-turn, there isn’t many better to control the ball and get out of tight spaces, from there he can dictate the play. A common feature as seen in the image below is that Cazorla looks to be the first option when coming out of the penalty area and instead of opting to pass the ball out to open play he often looks to carry the ball himself, taking on two players at the same time. He does this as an effort to win a foul for Villarreal and it is quite successful picking up 1.4 fouls per 90 in the league.
Once in open play, his passing ability is often used to find the players on the right flank through diagonal ball often bypassing the midfielders in the opposition and creating a 1v1 scenario for the wide player to attack at the opposition. His accuracy for passes into the final third is 84.4% in which he attempts 9.29 per 90 showing his progressive thinking and eye to move the ball forward.
The presence of being able to use both feet means that Cazorla no matter where on the pitch if given enough space can execute these long-range passes to create these attacking situations.
Why Cazorla’s intelligent use of space is so important for two reasons:
- It creates situations where two players would usually be required and Cazorla takes on the role of both. In man of the examples shown, Cazorla could just pass the ball to another opponent, yet he decides to drive forward for with the ball meaning that player can now create a run of position himself in a better area to receive the ball then where he was previously set.
- Where Cazorla’s is often able to win fouls from these situations, it breaks up the momentum of the opposition. Giving Villarreal a chance to reset their tactics and formation in order to create their next attacking opportunity.
Low centre of gravity
Often seen with smaller stature players like Messi and Agüero for example, they are beneficiaries of using their low centre of gravity to adapt and change the direction of the way they are facing with the ball and to manoeuvre out of tight spaces.
Cazorla’s 5’6” frame is often seen as a disadvantage in football, especially in the position he plays; centre midfield. However, the smaller stature and ability to shift his bodyweight quicker than the taller heavier opponents is something he’s been able to master to his advantage.
Cazorla uses his body weight to shield the ball away from the Levante defender. His low stance presents a difficult obstacle to unbalance and his technical ability to keep the ball under close control means that the constant tussle for the ball results in the defender usually falling over their momentum freeing Cazorla of pressure and allowing him to create a pass.
From his half, he shields the ball constantly often to win fouls which leads to a rest period for Villarreal to reset their play and start constructing attacking phases to lead to scoring. The image below shows Cazorla with his back to his own goal, but instead of moving forward with the ball. He shifts his body weight into the opposition player again creating a force of momentum he can use to turn away and play the ball to the left-back adjacent to him for the Villarreal players to get to their positions and reset their attacks.
The use of allowing your body weight and low centre of gravity to muscle off opposition is that it slows the play down for the team in position, giving them a chance to get out of the deep areas of the pitch that they previously were. Especially after opposition set-pieces, Villarreal often defends with at least seven players in their penalty area on corners and indirect free kicks meaning they need a sequence of play to allow the attacks to get up the pitch. Cazorla’s utilisation in situations like below allows this transition period to pass and introduce more players higher up the field.
Not everyone who has a smaller stature is able to manipulate their low centre of gravity to this extent. Why Cazorla is so effective at this, is the fact that his technical ability is so astute that even in situations where he should not be able to control the ball in tight spaces, his close control gives him the ability to maintain possession.
Furthermore, his IQ is far superior to many midfielders hence his resurgence at the age of 35, being able to see your movements before they happen is something not many are capable of but this is something Cazorla has constantly shown throughout his career.
This, in turn, allows for his team to have less to think about as he can do a lot of the tactical work that often goes unseen. The wingers can always get in behind and into attacking positions as the genius of Cazorla allows him to create opportunities where most wouldn’t.
When assessing the analysis of Cazorla you can see further up the field, Cazorla’s passing in shorter spaces and along the floor is just as dangerous as his long-range passing. With passes into the box attempted per game, Cazorla tries to create attacking opportunities as regularly as possible considering how deep he sometimes collects the ball in the transition from defence to attacking phases.
This allows Villareal to play with pace, with the likes of Samuel Chukwueze offering it in abundance. Cazorla’s ability to find players at such high accuracy and with the abundance of passing into the final third means the side can set up to dominate possession and then of old the ball out wide of play successfully on the counter as the pace in forward areas means the pinpoint passing of Cazorla will be able to find the relevant players.
Cazorla has the freedom to operate within the spaces from the left-hand side of the pitch into central areas and at the wide left position also. His ability to create chances is a big aspect of this. As shown in the image above, you can see how advanced up the field is: occupying the left-wing position and providing a cross that ended up in a goal. Showing his willingness to get into attacking areas and set up goals for his teammates.
The skill to weight through balls perfectly to create goal-scoring opportunities have also been on display by Cazorla, which he does at a success rate of 40.5%. Cazorla often creates these opportunities by drifting in and around the penalty area. Often acting as a release valve for his teammates, meaning that he is providing an open option for the ball to be relayed too in case the current phase of play breaks down.
His through ball passes are so good because Cazorla is able to see the spaces that are presented to him between the defensive line. His ability to place passes in between to centre backs or the centre-back and adjacent full-back means that strikers are able to capitalise on these spaces creating goal-scoring opportunities.
The space ahead of the defensive line including Iborra in the defensive midfield role and centre-backs is left for Cazorla to roam and find the key pass necessary. On the other hand, there is often a change with Manu Trigueros where he will advance higher up the field right on the edge of the box ready to shoot or play a definitive pass into the box.
Cazorla is so dangerous because his ability to use both feet and so well means that he doesn’t take any unnecessary touches before he strikes the ball, either for a pass or for a shout on goal. Many players if on their weaker side need time to set themselves up or shift the ball onto their favoured boot.
Cazorla being ambidextrous, however, eradicates the small seconds it takes for these adjustments and is able to play the ball on either side. Meaning the tempo of the Villareal side will always be that little bit quicker as the ball is able to move out of his feet quickly on either side.
Defensively, Cazorla like all players in the Villarreal team are asked to constantly press against he opposition to win the ball back as quickly as possible. In fact, when Cazorla faces loose ball duels he is successful 43.3% of the time, despite his smaller stature to what is normal for a midfielder (standing at 5’6” and 65kg).
Whilst the opposition is on the break Cazorla is always on the retreat to the left-hand side just in front of the penalty area with two tasks; intercept any balls directed back into central midfield and if possession is gained by Villarreal, Cazorla is a first option to pick up the ball and advance it forward.
His reading of where he is on the pitch and how he can cut out danger both in his own half and the opposition shows how hard he moves around in the game. With 2.38 interceptions and 4.62 recoveries is an indication of this, as well as the fact that 44.4% of his recoveries are indeed in the opposition half. Showing his effectiveness in the press.
Where his role defensively isn’t as emphasized as others in the team, Cazorla is still able to implement a considerable amount of work for a central midfielder of his size, helping the team where possible, he isn’t a luxury player nor a liability. Always willing to getting stuck in where the opportunity arises, as well as being a vocal leader on the pitch.
For all the positives that he produces on the pitch, there are some limitations in his game. Too often in the opposition’s attacks, he does get caught out by occupying space rather than closing down the danger.
The image below shows that although he did attempt to apply pressure to the player on the ball, it wasn’t as aggressive enough to win the win back or deter the player from playing the pass in front. This instance actually led to the third goal for Atletico Madrid and the application of continuous press may have had a difference here.
At the age of 35, it is clear that Cazorla doesn’t have the legs he once did, and you can gauge a sense of this in his zonal and spatial marking. When the opposition is in transition, Cazorla will often run into areas where he can seek to cut out any passes that may enter his vicinity rather than sprinting full speed to close down the ball carrier.
His loss in pace means that he is no longer able to keep up with players when on the attack, meaning his tackles numbers are considerably low in comparison to seasons past. In 2015/16 at Arsenal in the Premier League Cazorla would average for the season 3.9 interceptions and 8.06 recoveries per game; a league renowned for its quicker tempo.
So his adaptation has resulted in looking at where he should place himself to cut out the ball or when possession is lost, where is the most effective place for him to be to receive the ball and turn defence into attack as quickly as possible.
At the age of 35, not many footballers are able to perform at a high level in one of Europe’s top five leagues. Yet, Cazorla seems to be turning back the clock, providing several displays that show he could continue playing for another year or two.
His numbers are well-rounded showing attacking intent and end product as well as putting a shift in defensively despite Villarreal’s struggles.
With his performances seeing him being called into the national side, it would not have seemed too far-fetched to assume that he could be I the national side for the Euro’s had they not been postponed a year. This scout report aimed to show how effective he has been and what his talents would’ve provided for Spain and how he is still operating at a top-class level.
The powers he had a few years ago aren’t 100% still there but as they say, “Form is Temporary, Class is Permanent”.