By Emile Donovan
The Beginning is the End of the Beginning
On May 14, 2014, in the seventieth minute of Arsenal’s match against Wigan Athletic, Santi Cazorla received a lofted ball near the left hand touchline, 70 yards from the Wigan goal. He killed the ball stone dead with a flick of his left boot and probed forward before knocking it back inside to Mikel Arteta. Receiving a return pass, Cazorla pushed into a cul-de-sac just past the half-way line as three Wigan defenders converged on the diminutive Spaniard, cutting off all possible passing lanes.
The ball rolled forward gently as Cazorla waited. Waited for a moment, for a sign, for any kind of movement, any shift in weight or flaw in the positioning of his markers. He was caught in a corner, up against the ropes, and like a counter-attacking boxer who needs a punch to counter-punch, he needed a shift in conditions in order to make something happen.
Aaron Ramsey, who had been dancing with the touchline five yards ahead of Santi, made a darting run in behind the defence that his marker failed to track. Quick as a flash, Cazorla stroked a weighted pass between two of the three markers that sliced through their zone like a laser blade through a soft Camembert. Freed from his shackles, Ramsey greedily bounded into 40 yards of vacant pasture like a sexy Welsh retriever zeroing in on a fallen duck. He finished stylishly past the Wigan ‘keeper, the final flourish of a comprehensive 4-1 victory that consigned the Lactics to relegation.
This was Santi Cazola’s fourth assist of the game. Garnering four assists is such a rare event that Santi was reportedly presented with a gold-encrusted GIF of the “Help me help you” scene from Jerry Maguire after the game—probably by Olivier Giroud, though this is unconfirmed. Certainly, however, Cazorla’s performance hinted that Arsenal had turned a new leaf. After a purgatorial 2012-13 that saw Alex Song hold his hand up as its star creative midfielder, Arsenal once again had a true playmaker directing traffic from behind the striker. The rebuilding process had begun, and in Santi, we had a defined, refined, top-class architect. And boy, did we need one.
Before, I Was Afraid, I Was Petrified…
It’s easy to forget what terrible shape Arsenal were in at the start of the 2012-13 season. Remember, this was a team reeling from the loss of van Persie, whose roles as talisman, captain, top scorer and (by orders of magnitude) best player left a sizeable void in the team. Van Persie’s mutiny left Arsenal woefully light going forward, when coupled with the failure to adequately replace Cesc Fabregas. At the time of Cazorla’s arrival, competition for the front four positions consisted of Olivier Giroud, Lukas Podolski, Gervinho, Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Tomas Rosicky and Cazorla: three of that number hadn’t played a single minute of Premier League football, one was an injury-ravaged veteran, one was 19 years old, and one was, well, Gervinho. Arsenal desperately needed their new signings – and particularly Cazorla, who was intended as the focal point of the team going forward – to bed in quickly. And bed in they did.
Cazorla might have shamed a duck taking its first swim, such was the rapidity with which he took to English football. Diminutive, stocky and not especially athletic, Santi resembled a graceful Spanish prince training to follow his dream of becoming a department store Santa Claus. But this lack of physicality provided no impediment to imposing himself on the English game. From the beginning his close control was magical, his feet dancing him out of danger as though he were some magical midget sired by Houdini and raised by MacGyver. Cazorla’s agility and skill, his range of passing, his exceptional spacial awareness, his two-footedness and his long-awaited ability (and willingness) to shoot from distance made him a fan favourite and a vital component of the team. His first season saw him break double figures in both goals and assists, voted Arsenal’s player of the season and ranked by Bloomberg as the tenth-best footballer on earth. At £15 million-odd, Santi looked an unconditional steal: a serious playmaker just below elite-level who could run a game from behind the striker in a manner not seen since Cesc left. The future, both for Cazorla and for Arsenal, looked bright.
You Sold Bale, We Signed…
It was never the plan for Arsenal to buy Mesut Özil. The pursuits of Higuain and Suarez testify that, while the attack was a priority, a finisher was vastly preferable to another creator. But when Real Madrid spent £80 million and had to balance the books, Arsenal were always going to be in for their offering—regardless of the sacrificial lamb. That’s how big transfers work when you’re rich, but not “let’s-spend-£50m-on-Sideshow-Bob-hey-does-that-count-as-a-charitable-donation” rich: you wait for big players to become available, rather than paying over the odds to persuade a club to sell them. It’s transfer opportunism, and sometimes you end up with something glamorously delectable, but not quite what you need, like a starving tramp presented with a charcuterie and goat’s cheese platter.
Despite the superfluousness of a luxury attacking midfielder in a team bulging with them, there was understandable elation when Arsenal bought Özil, and at the time there was an obvious way to fit him into the team as well. Pushing Cazorla onto the left flank with license to cut inside allowed Özil to flourish in the middle, as well as dividing creative responsibility between the two technicians. With Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain sharing the right flank and Giroud in the middle toiling endlessly like a tittie mag passed between the pubescent members of a 9th-grade football team, there seemed to be clear and defined roles for all Arsenal’s attacking players to live up to their potential.
In theory, at least. In reality, things panned out a little differently. A shift in the tactical zeitgeist re-emphasizing speed and power and directness in attack rendered Wenger’s tiki-taka-tinged possession style somewhat obsolete and easy to counter. Özil struggled in his first season, offering glimmers of brilliance which grew more and more rare as the season progressed. Giroud, through no fault of his own, ran out of gas halfway through the season. Theo Walcott—the one Arsenal attacker who really threatened to break into superstardom—tore his ACL early in the season. And lost in this hodgepodge of underachieving stars, exhausted workhorses and felled thoroughbreds, was Santi Cazorla.
His importance in the side diminished, Cazorla endured an ineffectual 2013-14, aside from his orgiastic free kick against Hull in the FA Cup Final. Sharing the creative burden with Özil was a nice idea, but in practice it caused Arsenal’s play to become slow and laboured, and Cazorla’s personal numbers in the league—four goals, seven assists—spoke of a playmaker whose play had been taken from him. Just 18 months after his arrival, Cazorla, like Lukas Podolski, gave off an aura of expendability.
In The Summertime
When they added Alexis and Danny Welbeck, Arsenal renovated their attack and also virtually destroyed the careers of several senior and junior players. There is, for instance, no way back in for Lukas Podolski, nor Tomas Rosicky, nor—in all likelihood—Joel Campbell. This isn’t to say that they can’t contribute, but they certainly can’t contribute on a level that justifies their wages. I think that, had Arsenal received viable offers for any of these players in August, they would’ve been out the door faster than you could say “Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateapokaiwhenuakitanatahu“. And prior to December 2014, I think Santi Cazorla’s name could be added to that list too.
At the start of September it was difficult to see how Cazorla fitted into an Arsenal first XI. With Alexis, Welbeck and Özil all guaranteed starting berths, Walcott on his way back, Wenger intent on shoehorning Wilshere into an advanced position and Oxlade-Chamberlain needing minutes to take his game to the next level, Cazorla seemed stuck in “Samir Nasri Limbo”, as a luxury playmaking dribbler who should really be the hub of his team, but who finds himself making up the attacking numbers in a team not geared around his talents. Even when Özil was ruled out for three months with a serious injury, reinstating Cazorla into his preferred position, the little Spaniard failed to fire. Until, that is, November 26 rolled around—and the old Santi Cazorla was reborn.
Guess Who’s Back
In the four matches before Arsenal played Dortmund at the Emirates, Santi Cazorla’s average Whoscored.com rating was 6.8; in the six matches since, that rating has ballooned to an average rating of 8.27. Cazorla has three goals and five assists this season; all three goals and four of the five assists have come in those six matches. He has the fourth-highest overall performance score in the Premier League, largely influenced by the five league games in his period. In short, Santi’s back—the question is, what does that mean for the future?
In theory, a fully fit Arsenal attack—the footballing equivalent of Bigfoot dancing a waltz with the Loch Ness Monster on Saturday Night Live—could be seen as early as mid-January. With Özil and Walcott on the way to full recovery, it leaves Arsene Wenger with something of a pickle—and not an altogether desirable one. Does he persevere with Cazorla in the middle, leaving out the most expensive signing in Arsenal’s history? Does he move Cazorla out to the left again, trusting that Santi’s form will compensate for the fact that this move hasn’t worked in the past? If Özil walks back into the central attacking position, as I strongly believe he will, this leaves Cazorla fighting with Alexis, Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Welbeck for a position on one of the flanks; where does Santi lie in that pecking order?
Tim Stillman indirectly addressed this quandary in a column for Arseblog where he opined that Theo Walcott may not be as valuable to the side as he once was. Personally, I disagree: before his ACL tear Theo was the one Arsenal attacker besides Özil who looked to be breaking into “elite” territory. Arsenal has invested too much time and effort into developing Walcott as a player, and his qualities are too extreme to simply cast aside, despite Alexis’s and Welbeck’s speed mitigating the damage felt by his absence.
Personally, I think Arsenal’s first-choice front four consists of Alexis, Özil, Walcott and Giroud. Regrettably, this would consign Cazorla back to a bench role, but even in spite of his form it’s difficult to see how Santi fits into the current Arsenal team with everybody fit. He is too good a player, and too fiscally valuable, to ride the bench—and, like it or not, a purge is coming to clean out the Arsenal attack.
I’d love to see Santi Cazorla stay and see out his career at Arsenal, I really would. But he doesn’t really make sense. And, with a value of £15 million and only two or three of his best years left in him, it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see him go, sooner rather than later.