Three dream replacements for Santi Cazorla at Arsenal, and three wild cards
Rewind to less than a fortnight ago and Arsenal did not look in need of January reinforcements. With the strongest squad in some years at his disposal, Arsene Wenger had his team joint top of the Premier League as recently as December 10.
All that has changed, with back-to-back defeats against Everton and Manchester seeing Arsenal slip to fourth, nine points behind Chelsea. Suddenly questions are being asked of the manager, and his players, again.
But the first take still holds true, by and large. With Shkodran Mustafi returning in around a week, and Aaron Ramsey and Danny Welbeck back in full training, defence, midfield and attack are all about to be strengthened by fit-again quality players.
The only major long-term problem surrounds a player who has proved irreplaceable. Santi Cazorla has not played since October 19 due to an Achilles problem. Arsenal had won nine in 10 matches prior to his injury and that has dipped to just seven wins in 14 games since.
Cazorla is a unique player. Starting off as a wide attacker for Arsenal, he has been superb since taking up a deeper midfield role two seasons ago and his impeccable, probing passing, whether short or long, is complemented by his ambidextrous dribbling, which gives him another method to penetrate teams, as well as his impressive set-piece ability.
During his absence, Arsenal have largely relied on summer signing Granit Xhaka to fill in but he looks a shadow of the player Cazorla is, while Ramsey is better further forward and Francis Coquelin and Mohamed Elneny are too limited to try and emulate his role.
The only conclusion is that if Arsenal want to try and adequately replace Cazorla – both in the short term, while he is injured, and in the long term, given he is 32, they may have to turn to the transfer market to do it. But which players across Europe could realistically do the Cazorla job for Arsenal? We asked our offices across the continent to come up with some suggestions…
Thiago (Bayern Munich)
Thiago Alcantara (Bayern) face à LeipzigAFP
The player whose skill-set best matches that of Cazorla in world football? Thiago grew up in the Barcelona academy and was refined by Pep Guardiola at Bayern, so his use of the ball is understandably impeccable and, like his older international team-mate, he is regularly the most prolific passer on the pitch. He is also adept at breaking through the lines with a well-judged dribble, although our German correspondent Florian Bogner readily accepts there is little-to-no chance that Arsenal would be able to sign him given his importance to Bayern and the huge wages he earns.
James Rodriguez (Real Madrid)
James Rodríguez (Real Madrid)AFP
Rumours that James has been back in Colombia obtaining a UK visa have kick-started stories about a move to the Premier League, with Chelsea and Manchester United both heavily linked with an attacking playmaker who has been frozen out at the Bernabeu. He more often plays in the final third, but Cazorla was converted from an attacker too and James is good at directing a game, dangerous with the ball at his feet and a threat from set-pieces. Spanish reporter Cristian Maxedo says he would probably prefer Chelsea to Arsenal, though.
Marco Verratti (Paris Saint-Germain)
Paris Saint-Germain's Italian midfielder Marco Verratti warms upAFP
The 24-year-old Italy star averages almost 100 completed passes every match this season in Ligue 1, even more than Thiago, and he clearly fits the bill in terms of being a deep-lying playmaker who likes to set the tempo of a match. Verratti is also happy taking opponents on and so closely mirrors some of Cazorla’s key attributes. The only problem is that he would be very hard to sign – French reporter Loris Belin says even a world-record fee wouldn’t convince PSG to sell - and would be more likely to join Antonio Conte with Chelsea also credited with an interest of late.
Piotr Zielinski (Napoli)
Napoli's midfielder from Poland Piotr Zielinski (C) fights for the ball with Inter Milan's defender from Brazil Joao Miranda (R) and Inter Milan's midfielder from Croatia Marcelo BrozovicAFP
The Poland star almost ended up at Liverpool this summer before joining Napoli from Udinese, and although he has seen a lot of the bench, he has two goals and two assists in Serie A this season. Our Polish correspondent Piotr Kwiatkowski says he is one of the biggest prospects in Polish football and although he plays a bit further forward, liking a dribble, his passing is suitably accurate. A target who would certainly be much more attainable, even if he would need some polishing if he was to drop back..
Axel Witsel (Zenit St Petersburg)
Zenit St Petersburg's Belgian midfielder Axel Witsel (front) and Dundalk's Irish midfielder Patrick McEleneyAFP
The great news for Arsenal is that Belgium international Witsel is available on a free transfer next summer, even if Juventus are ready to move for him again after failing to beat the summer deadline, and it would be a surprise if he was not somewhere in Wenger’s thoughts. He has excellent passing ability and good close control, although his finishing needs some work. He would be a more physical alternative to Cazorla but our Russian reporter Mikhail Biryukov says he would be a brilliant option for Arsenal.
Oguzhan Ozyakup (Besiktas)
Turkey's midfielder Oguzhan Ozyakup reacts at the end of the Euro 2016 group D football match between Czech Republic and TurkeyAFP
A real left-field choice. Ozyakup was actually on Arsenal’s books between 2008 and 2012, only making two appearances in the League Cup before leaving for Besiktas, where he has flourished into a very impressive midfielder. In fact, only four players make more passes per game in the Turkish Super Lig. Still just 24, our Turkish reporter Meric Gursoy says he would be perfect for Arsenal, a box-to-box player who can run an attack too. There have also been rumours about his return to North London…