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Santi Cazorla delivers, Arsenal's elves don't

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Santi Cazorla was immense on Sunday. Unfortunately for him and for Arsenal, he was one of the few.

Alex Livesey/Getty Images

After 3 months of middling form, Santi Cazorla has reawakened in the month of December. The renaissance began in Arsenal's 2-0 victory against Borussia Dortmund, before an outstanding performance including a burst and cross for Danny Welbeck's winner against West Bromwich Albion put Cazorla firmly back in form. He followed that week up by being one of the few Arsenal players to not be utterly useless against Stoke, and then with a match-winning performance against Newcastle, scoring twice with impudent finishes.

Arsenal's midfield against Newcastle consisted of Cazorla, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Mathieu Flamini. It was the same in yesterday's match against Liverpool, but Arsenal's performance was notably different: 71% pass completion rate, 36% possession. Most of that boils down to Arsenal's midfield, which was, aside from Cazorla, wholly inadequate against Liverpool's pressing. Some of these limitations are well-known: Mathieu Flamini's ability on the ball is not good enough for a team with the aspirations that Arsenal claim to have, and that he is the first backup to Mikel Arteta is one of the failures of Arsenal's summer. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was also subpar, and while some of this is down to fitness--his acceleration seemed to be nonexistent, a causation of a groin injury--but his passing, especially under pressure, meant Arsenal couldn't sustain possession and relieve pressure on Arsenal's defence.

This was Arsenal's larger problem. Playing in a low block and with less possession is not a bad thing. But in the first half, the low block was disorganised, with Flamini left with too much of a gap between his defenders and Oxlade-Chamberlain and Cazorla. Furthermore, Arsenal's counter threat was nonexistent. Despite saying pre-match that Arsenal would try to exploit Liverpool's weakness in the wide areas, Arsenal rarely made forays down Liverpool's flanks. Some of that is down to the movement of the wide players, Danny Welbeck and Alexis Sánchez; some of it is also down to the fact that aside from Cazorla, none of Arsenal's midfielders were comfortable in possession, forcing Arsenal to play more direct football. Olivier Giroud's hold-up play, however, was not effective.

The second half saw some improvement: Arsenal closed the gap between the midfield and defence, and exploited the flanks a little more. This came, notably, from Cazorla, who brilliantly assisted Giroud's goal after combination play down the left from Kieran Gibbs. But following Giroud's goal, Arsenal put themselves under pressure by an inability to keep possession. Again, aside from Cazorla, Arsenal's midfield couldn't retain the ball under pressure: Oxlade-Chamberlain's dribbling style is not close enough, unlike Cazorla, to keep the ball in the middle of the park. Bringing on Francis Coquelin was an effort to close out Liverpool's midfield, and despite going down to 10, Liverpool were able to win the ball in Arsenal's half.

And because only one midfielder could pass, Arsenal rarely put together the type of counter attack that could've resulted in a third goal. This is not only a failure of Flamini and Oxlade-Chamberlain, but also of Alexis and Welbeck. Alexis was particularly poor, completing 69.6% of his passes, and leading the side in dispossessions with 6. It is a return to the issues that saw Alexis briefly dropped when Mesut Özil was fit.

Cazorla's performance, however, should not go unnoticed despite Arsenal's late concession to Martin Skrtel. While Cazorla may no longer possess the constant pace needed for a wide role, he has been a revelation in a deeper central midfield role this season. Not only is he superb under pressure, with great close control and passing, but he is also very good at winning the ball back: he put in a defensive shift yesterday, tracking runners and, especially in the second half, protecting Flamini. While he doesn't have the energy to play a pressing role in midfield, unlike Aaron Ramsey or Jack Wilshere, he can be an able second midfielder in a low block, counter-attacking set-up. What Arsenal need to do more this season is to create better chances: with only 30 goals in 17 games, and several draws where they failed to take advantage of momentum, it is that, more than defending, that has been the biggest issue this season.

With the injuries in defence, it is unsurprising that Arsenal's defence and defenders have struggled. But what leads to more struggling is the inability to score goals: it puts Arsenal under pressure and magnifies each mistake. Had Arsenal scored a third yesterday when they were in a perfect position to hit Liverpool on the counter attack, they'd be walking away with three points, because for all of Liverpool's pressure and shots, they only drew one great save from Wojciech Szczesny in the second half; not bad when you consider how makeshift the defence was. In these circumstance, the defence needs more from the Arsenal attack, and yesterday, they, and Cazorla, were let down.