Santi: The Santa of statistical analysis

by Justin Lipman
Santi Cazorla ArsenalOur story opens on the Eastern seaboard of Spain in the quaint, orange-picking town of Villarreal. A place devoid of the rampant lonely planet summation or the general scrawling modernisation of the West, Villarreal sits firmly in the shadow of neighbouring Valencia, and in footballing terms (for what other terms could exist) the town sits equidistant from the two most important titans of Spanish culture, Barcelona in the North-East and Madrid in the West. What this Spanish microcosm does possess, is a football side that appears atop the all-conquering hit list of a Google search for “Villarreal”, just as it embodies the town itself; first and foremost.

Villarreal are the archetypal model for overachieving outfits. The Yellow Submarine has been a veritable symbol of success against the odds; and the cheque book. Their first junket into the Primera Liga was a fleeting visit in 1998. It was an inauspicious beginning to the long and complex entanglement that was to follow over the next decade. It took a further consolidating season in the lower tiers before establishing themselves from relative obscurity to 1st division mediocrity. The UEFA Intertoto Cup, far from a household name, marks the next stage in progress for the, by this stage, burgeoning club. It also marked the entrée to a glorious stretch of European adventure that so nearly culminated in a Champions League final place, were it not for an errant Riquelme penalty at Highbury in 2005. With this gallant over-achieving came a drastic decline, that ended in last season’s drab relegation.

Villarreal’s decline coincides, quite elegantly, with the departure of the diminutive wizard: Santi Cazorla. While one Spanish side was plummeting towards the Segunda Division, Malaga, the recent acquires of Mr Cazorla were surging towards their own European quest. With the benefits of Opta and their all conquering database we can develop an analytical snapshot of Santi’s impact:

2010-11 Villarreal with Cazorla:

Total games: 37

Points per game: 1.59

Goals per game: 1.35

Goal difference per game: 0.16

League position: 4th

2011-12 Villarreal without Cazorla:

Total games: 38

Points per game: 1.08

Goals per game: 1.03

Goal difference per game: -0.38

League position: 18th

Undoubtedly there remains a myriad of alternate factors that could be wholly, or at least partially culpable for this drastic shift, but coupled with the sudden rise of Malaga, at which Cazorla had an immediate impact, it seems a compelling case to consider. The afore-mentioned figures are considered by Opta to be the most statistically significant numbers, as those figures directly relate to winning football games – rather intuitively. The following numbers form a supporting base for our inquiry:

2010-11 Villarreal with Cazorla:

Shots on target per game: 5.4

Total shots per game: 13.9

Pass completion % in final third: 47.77%

Successful dribbles per game in final third: 4.62

Dribble success % in final third: 34.41%

2011-12 Villarreal without Cazorla:

Shots on target per game: 4.6

Total shots per game: 12.0

Pass completion % in final third: 44.35%

Successful dribbles per game in final third: 3.50

Dribble success % in final third: 27.94%

This paints a simply staggering tale. A clearer picture would be difficult to ascertain.

And this is where our story fits together – a rites of passage for our Spaniard. Cazorla returns to North London, and while we admit a return to Highbury would have suited the fairytale more adeptly, we’ll settle for the Emirates under Arsene. Cazorla certainly does not fit the mould of Wenger’s typical Summer signing, joining Germany’s Podolski as a recognised, mature and peaking talent. Cazorla is certainly not the youthful star that has graced the Gunners for recent seasons, but rather a player with a proven ability to add impetus to a stuttering attacking unit and actualise the potential of those around him. Accused of being a one-man side, Arsenal looks to Cazorla as a bastion of over-achievement – a tag not associated with the Gunners of late. A proselyte of statistics himself, it would not be a far reach to imagine Wenger adopting a similar analysis.

At first glance in England, Cazorla looks to have settled remarkably quickly. With the exception of Hazard at Chelsea, he seems the first Summer transfer to establish themselves as a central cog in their new side. Cazorla is in the mould of his contemporaries, and recent additions to the Prem, in David Silva and Juan Mata. Equally slight in figure and equally a master of the round ball, the major difference being his ambidextrous proficiency. FFTD’s own inner sanctum has argued about his favoured side, but the Spaniard is highly skilled at either left or right peg – a quality too often absent in the English game. So, with Cazorla a trump in the growing deck of analytical fodder, something of a boon for statistical boffins, we will have to wait to determine if he can turn the undoubted promise of the red half of North London into something more substantial.

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