True Leaders are Game Readers – the Lost Art at Arsenal’s Heart

As Arsenal fans, we have been witness to some truly brilliant footballers. Ones that led with their advanced footballing IQs through and an innate awareness of space. These players could truly read the game around them. While many feel we lack overt leaders on the pitch who will tear into a teammate or opposition, I feel it’s “game readers” that are sorely missed.

My Arsenal book collection. Many Wenger-Era books speak of creative license given to players.

Regardless of your feelings towards Arsene Wenger, he gives his players creative license. The lack of drilling of tactical responsibility and a general laissez faire attitude towards game management are commonalities described in just about every piece of Arsenal-related literature I’ve read on the Wenger Era. This philosophical ideal works when you have intelligent footballers that see the big picture and are able to adapt to their surroundings.

Maybe the most obvious recent example can be seen in Santi Cazorla. I’ve recently written about him as the “rotational hub” that surveys the game and moves fluidly around his teammates. This is slightly atypical of most top holding midfielders, but his ability to balance play with his positional awareness accentuates his other attributes (e.g. technical ability, two-footedness, range of passing, etc.). Quite simply, it’s this type of player we’ve lacked recently.

Santi Cazorla aka “The Rotational Hub”

I feel the prism through which we perceive the English game has clouded our thoughts.  A massive problem with English football is that it’s engulfed in a reality where fans and pundits often overrate qualities like workrate, physicality, and endeavor. If a player doesn’t appear to work hard enough they are criticized. This attitude has marginalized qualities like technical ability and analyzation of the game. The Premier League and the English National Team are underperforming in big competitions as a result. Do you think Spanish fans often criticized Xavi for his lack of physicality? Italian fans for Pirlo’s workrate? Not a chance.

Below are Arsenal’s best “game readers” of the Wenger-era, in addition to Cazorla. These are players that have helped embody “the Arsenal way” and have given credence to Wenger’s philosophical values. These are the types of players we’ve lacked consistent contribution from over the past few seasons.

Bergkamp: the embodiment of precision. Able to dictate games by running in behind defenses or from creative pockets. His game reading allowed him to change his style of play as his career progressed.

Fabregas: technicality on the ball combined with a superior understanding of the partnerships around him. We built our formation/style of play around him for 4+ years. His short- to long-range passing ability always kept defenses honest.

Rosicky: ever-present (when healthy) and always linking with teammates. He is similar to Cazorla in his ability to pivot around teammates. His ability to close space and channel play in defensively without unnecessary pressing is underrated, which helped us immensely off the ball.

Arteta: a consistent metronome in the center of the midfield that kept our play ticking over. A stabilizing presence despite a finesse playing style. Was able to win the ball back by beating players to a spot rather than with physicality.

Mertesacker: much maligned due to his lack of pace and resonating moments where team structure has left him isolated to defend 1:1 in space. Has an uncanny ability to see patterns of play unfold and then intervene. Is it any coincidence our most sustained title challenge of recent years in 13/14 came the season Arteta and Mertesacker played 29 league games together?

Arsenal doesn’t necessarily need a plethora of incensed, boisterous, Flamini-esque leaders on the pitch. They need more analytical minds that adapt to in-game situations given our free-flowing style. We need players with spacial awareness and an ability to read teammates and oppositional structure. We need players that see two steps ahead and have constant mental images of play patterns in their minds. These are my types of leaders.

-Dougie Cazorla

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