An ode to the brilliance of the Spaniard in North London and his resurrection back home.
By Justin Bodanac
Third Acts are hard to come by in football. Those like Santi Cazorla’s are even rarer. If a player is fortunate enough to call time on their top-flight career on their own terms, few do it while still at the peak of their powers. Even fewer do it after recovering from the now-folkloric injury that Cazorla endured. We as fans are fortunate, too. Not only because we witnessed his rejuvenation, but because the past two seasons allowed us time to reflect properly on his legacy as a truly magnificent servant to football.
When Cazorla arrived at Arsenal at the start of the 2012/13 season he was admittedly an unknown commodity to most Gooners. Those with an astute eye on La Liga knew that Cazorla was part of a Malaga side (along with Nacho Monreal) that had incredibly taken fourth spot the previous season, nabbing a Champions League berth. Perhaps they had also seen him play an integral role in boyhood club Villareal’s second place finish in 2007/08, in a midfield that included Arsenal legend Robert Pirès. He made 248 appearances for The Yellow Submarine until 2012. But fewer were probably aware that Spanish publication Don Balón had declared him the best Spanish player in La Liga during his 2006/07 spell with minnows Recreativo de Huelva.
Arsenal had been drifting from the Highbury-set halcyon days. Their last silverware had been seven seasons prior. They would relinquish captain Robin van Persie to Manchester United mere days after Cazorla’s arrival – the same team that had savagely pelted them 8-2 the previous campaign. Their core group was changing; Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri had gone the season before. In came German international Lukas Podolski from FC Köln, Olivier Giroud from Montpellier and Cazorla. Arsenal fans needed a player to rekindle their spark. Within a few games, they knew the Spaniard was their man.
Cazorla’s influence was immediate, receiving the Man Of The Match award on debut against Sunderland, and scoring his first goal two games later in a victory at Anfield. He was diminutive yet tenacious, had two excellent feet, outstanding awareness and exquisite close control. He also had an undeniable air of good will and positivity about him. Arsène Wenger would initially deploy him to great effect in an attacking role behind a central striker. He would be the main creative outlet for the side, drawing in two or three opposition players at a time before releasing the ball into the space in front. He adjusted to the English style effortlessly, playing every league game that season – registering twelve goals and fourteen assists. Yet perhaps because of Arsenal’s growing reputation as easy tabloid fodder, Cazorla’s individual qualities went somewhat unnoticed. He won the Arsenal Player of the Year, but didn’t make the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) team in any capacity.
Over the next two seasons Arsenal added Mesut Özil and Alexis Sanchez to their attack – big money personalities who expected to play in their favoured positions. Whether by accident or design, this overload up top (coinciding with some squad injuries) created an opportunity for Cazorla further down the pitch. It was in this position – the deep lying playmaker – that he truly shone for the Gunners. Few would have expected the midfield axis of Cazorla and Francis Coquelin to be as effective as it was, and yet they complimented each other perfectly – Coquelin was a disruptor, Cazorla was everything else. He established himself as the fulcrum of that team – tackling, collecting, distributing, creating and breaking lines. He could operate as a pure regista – receiving and retaining the ball under enormous pressure, then releasing it further up the field on either foot. Or he could assume a more box-to-box role – collecting the ball in front of the defence and carrying it forward through the middle himself. While the headlines were spent on Wenger, Özil and Sanchez, Cazorla kept the team ticking.
There are distinct moments that are continually highlighted during his time with Arsenal, each showing a different facet of his game. His four assists against Wigan in 2013, qualifying the club for the Champions League in the process. His 35-yard free kick in the 2014 FA Cup final against Hull, when the Gunners were shell-shocked at 2-0 down, sparking them back to life and breaking their eight-year trophy drought. His absolute domination of Manchester City in a 2-0 victory at the Etihad Stadium in 2015 – probably his best individual performance in an Arsenal shirt – a year after the Gunners conceded six there. But what he really brought to the Arsenal doesn’t translate into a five-minute highlight reel. He served the club with a positivity and humanity that united the entire fan base around him.
These qualities became all the more obvious in his absence. In his final three seasons with the Gunners, he made just 23 league appearances as injuries took their toll. That toll went far beyond what anyone could have imagined when he limped off during a 2016 Champions League game against Ludogorets Razgrad, in what was unknowingly to be his final appearance for the club. The injury originated three years earlier while on international duty and he had pushed it to the limit. Cazorla’s road to recovery has since been well-documented in gruesome detail elsewhere – 11 operations, gangrene, eight centimetres of eaten tendon, skin grafts and possible amputation… 668 days in the athlete’s abyss.
None of this was apparent at the time from the fans point of view. It was just a gradual and muted goodbye – a reluctant acceptance that things weren’t improving for him, and with his contract done (after a one-year extension had run its course), it looked like the injury had wound up his career prematurely. He left The Emirates unanimously loved at the end of the 2017/18 season. No final game. No proper goodbye. It was a parting tinged with if only.
So to find ourselves here two years on – with Cazorla at 35 years of age, having just completed two seasons and 86 more appearances for his home-town club Villarreal, scoring 22 more goals, guiding them to European football next season and captaining the Spanish national side – is the stuff even a Hollywood writer would deem too far-fetched. This ultimate phoenix act has not only been a joy for the supporters he has represented, but it’s also given the tastemakers a moment to see what they might have missed the first or second time around.
Cazorla will now exit the top echelons of football for a new adventure and do so on his own terms. He will journey to Doha and join Al-Sadd in the Qatar Stars League, managed by compatriot and Barcelona legend Xavi Hernández. Whatever happens next is simply a bonus in one of football’s greatest comebacks. With Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta already declaring the door open to Cazorla in a coaching capacity, a legion of Gooners can once again hope to see him back at The Emirates one day for the proper reception he deserves.