During Saturday’s match against Crystal Palace, there was a moment where the ball had squirted loose in midfield and two players from opposite teams ran full speed to collect. Cazorla, the Arsenal man, beat the Crystal Palace midfielder to the ball by mere inches and at the speed he was running I expected him to take a heavy touch and kick the ball to an opponent. But the ball seemed to stick to him like velcro as he effortlessly switched from left to right foot, skipped by the Palace man, and started Arsenal’s attack. That moment of skill didn’t make any highlight reels and for many who watched the game might have been lost among the more stellar moments of the game, but for me, it epitomized the play of Cazorla, a player who somehow quietly does the brilliant work in the background while others take the glory.
Well, maybe he’s not so quiet but there is no doubt that he’s playing something of a background role to the star players like Özil and Sanchez.
Cazorla is a player who would walk right into a starring role on almost any team in Europe. And yet, at Arsenal, he’s playing behind Özil in the creative role, behind Ramsey in the shuttling role, behind Arteta in the penalty-taker role, and behind Sanchez in the attacking role. But such is his gift that Cazorla still manages to be Arsenal’s third leading scorer with 7 goals, second leading playmaker with 6 assists on 2.3 key passes per game, and the Gunners’ third best dribbler with 2.4 dribbles per game. He does all that while being Arsenal’s leading passer, best crosser, and the player who takes all of the Arsenal corners and set plays.
With talent like that, Cazorla should be the star player at Arsenal. But instead of being a solo artist himself, he is happy playing technically perfect football with leads like Özil and Sanchez. That’s why Santi Cazorla has to be the most talented second fiddle in Europe.
Starting with the 2-0 win over Borussia Dortmund, where both Arsenal goals were created by Cazorla, the Spaniard has managed to score or assist 15 goals in 17 games. It is a rich vein of form unmatched by any other Arsenal player and the main reason why he has won player of the month awards for two months running.
There have been some stinker’s in that run. The 2-0 loss to Southampton and the 2-1 loss to Spurs were probably his worst matches of the season. But in Cazorla’s defense, in the Southampton match, he was played in front of a central midfield pairing of Chambers and Coquelin, who made their first appearance together in that game and their inexperience showed as they struggled to get the ball out of defense. And against Tottenham, Cazorla was marked out of the game as Spurs forced out of shape Ramsey and the inexperienced Coquelin to beat them.
And the stinkers have been balanced out by astonishing matches. Against the reigning Premier League champions (you, know, Manchester City) Cazorla scored a goal and created the second goal as Arsenal cruised to a 2-0 win. Arsenal’s first away win against a top four rival in what seems like a decade. According to the WhoScored.com metric, Cazorla was flawless in that match, getting a perfect 10. He followed that performance up with a two-assist, one-goal performance in Arsenal’s 5-0 win over the hapless Aston Villa.
In many ways that Man City match epitomized Cazorla’s best qualities. Ten times in that match he picked the ball up and dribbled past City’s expensively assembled defensive midfielders. He doesn’t always have to dribble like that and in reality you don’t want to have to rely on a player dribbling out of defense to start the attack. But in that match, the way that City had Arsenal penned into their own half, his ability to hold on to the ball and beat the opposition time and again gave the Arsenal defense valuable time to catch their breath while also causing the City defense panic.
Watching the Man City midfielders fall all over themselves to try to get the ball off of him time and again was like watching a pro playing against little kids. Except in reverse: Cazorla is the smallest player on the pitch and the Man City defensive midfielders are these hulking figures trying in vain to tackle the ball away.
But it’s that ability to turn defense into attack that is Cazorla’s greatest attribute. When he gets the ball in midfield there is no hesitation, he already knows where his markers are, he knows where his teammates are, and he often just side-steps a defender with a simple one-two touch and then bombs a long ball up to Alexis. Or plays a perfectly weighted through ball to the feet of Welbeck. There is no stat (yet) which quantifies this ability, but if there were, I’m sure that Cazorla would lead the League.
When Cazorla first signed for Arsenal he was brought in to replace Cesc Fabregas. He did admirably in his first year but then Arsenal were presented with the chance to sign another world class creative midfielder, Mesut Özil, and Cazorla was relegated to a supporting role wide as Özil took the central spot. His goals and assists numbers dropped and it looked like he might be leaving Arsenal to be a star somewhere else.
But he didn’t leave. His head never dropped. He did what Arsene asked of him and plaayed his heart out for the team, wherever Wenger put him. And on the last game of the season, it was his strike from a free kick which gave Arsenal the impetus to come back from 2-0 down and win the FA Cup 3-2.
To Wenger’s great credit he ignored the pundits who said that it was a “no brainer” to always play Özil centrally and instead, when he returned from injury, he moved the German international to the left and let Cazorla keep the central midfield role. Instead of wondering how Cazorla and Özil can play together, people are now commenting on how seamlessly the two work together. And Wenger has been rewarded with that string of impressive performances from Cazorla. Cazorla, in turn, looks like a player who is really enjoying his football.
I know I’m really enjoying his football. Every time he plays I feel like I am watching a symphony, except when Özil or Sanchez stand up to take their solo, I turn to Cazorla, who is sitting there, eyes closed, soulfully playing the perfect notes to fill in for everything that the soloist leaves out.