After yet another match-winning contribution from Santi Cazorla, Arsenal may have finally replaced Robert Pires. The elegant left-sided midfielder was one of the linchpins of Arsene Wenger's great Arsenal teams at the start of the last decade.
Wenger deployed Cazorla on the left side of his front three for their recent 2-1 win over Aston Villa. Cazorla netted both goals, showcasing the movement and technical excellence in front of goal, that defined Pires at his best.
Wenger has chosen to deploy Cazorla in a wider starting position in several recent matches. He started him on the right against Bayern Munich in the UEFA Champions League. The tactic has a lot of advantages.
To begin with, Cazorla has a history of operating wide. He was deployed on the flanks for La Liga teams Villarreal and Malaga. Cazorla enjoys drifting into the middle and that can draw defenders away from overlapping full-backs and wide-roaming forwards attacking the channels.
Wenger's preferred brand of fast-flowing, yet intricate passing football, depends on wide players who are more midfielders than wingers. In fact, Arsenal's play has suffered in recent seasons due to a lack of true midfielders in wide areas. Playing Cazorla on the flanks solves that problem.
The most significant benefit of playing Cazorla wide, is the freedom it gives Jack Wilshere in the middle. Cazorla and Wilshere have both been deployed centrally ahead of Mikel Arteta. The problem is that they are both vying to be the main advanced playmaker.
The diminutive duo have a tendency to get in each other's way in key areas of the field. As a result, Arsenal's attacks become too narrow and often static. Shifting Cazorla wide allows Wilshere to assume the role as Arsenal's primary central attacking midfielder.
The Gunners need Wilshere to play closer to the strikers, where his skill on the ball when running at defenders can do maximum damage. With the young England ace through the middle and Cazorla occupying the left wing, Arsenal have the right balance and fluidity going forward.
This dynamic gives the Gunners the same combination Cesc Fabregas and Aleksandr Hleb produced in 2007/08. It is also similar to the Fabregas and Samir Nasri partnership of 2009-11. Just as important, pushing Cazorla wider gives Arsenal greater structure in the centre of their midfield.
With only Wilshere in an advanced role, Wenger can put another player alongside Arteta at the base of the midfield. Think back to earlier in the season when Arsenal had Arteta and Abou Diaby as a two-man midfield base.
That platform allowed the Gunners to secure excellent away results at Liverpool, Montpellier and Manchester City. It also let Cazorla start his Arsenal career with a flourish and made the team briefly more defensively solid.
Cazorla arrived as the successor to Fabregas as Arsenal's best central schemer. Instead the pint-sized playmaker has given Arsenal a throwback to the skills of Pires. He is an ambidextrous wide midfielder, blessed with deceptive strength and peerless technique, capable of scoring goals with either foot.
Cazorla's tally of 11 goals puts him on course to match the 12-15 Pires could be relied on to score at his peak. Keeping Cazorla wide is Wenger's smartest ploy to get the most from his best match-winner.