“We lost a good player, a world class player – I don’t deny that. It is a massive challenge to replace him and therefore we have to be even more of a team and work even more to together to compensate.” Sadly, that Arsene Wenger quote could be applied to many players over many different transfer windows. But that particular quote was in reference to the departure of Robin Van Persie. Wenger wanted to turn a ‘one-man band’ into a hard-working team. With that in mind, signing a small and skillful attacking midfielder might not have been the move other clubs would have made that summer. But Santi Cazorla proved, ‘what you see, isn’t always what you get.’
Arriving at the club having played his whole career in Spain, it was unknown whether Cazorla could cut it in the Premier League. But, that Arsenal team were desperate for someone with his qualities. Fabregas had left the club a year earlier, a few months after that departure, Wilshere suffered an injury that kept him out for the entire season. Meaning, the year before Cazorla arrived it was Rosicky, Ramsey and the loaned Yossi Benayoun sharing the creative midfield role. Those three were enough in a team with a clinical striker, but with Van Persie leaving and a less proven forward coming in, Arsenal needed a specialist in that creative role. Cazorla definitely fitted that bill.
At that time, our midfield options seemed to be plagued with injuries. But Cazorla was durable, he started every league game for Malaga the season before he joined. The Spaniard would go on to start in all but one Premier League game in his debut season at the club too, appearing more than any other Arsenal player across all competitions that season. His consistency was key to Arsenal navigating themselves into a Champions League spot that year. He was by far our most productive midfielder, with 26 goal involvements. It seemed that Arsenal had found a number 10 that could be trusted to be fit and create.
But a year after that debut season, Arsenal smashed their transfer record to sign a world famous number 10; Ozil arrived to a frenzied fanfare. It was clear that the German would command that number 10 role. So where did that leave Cazorla? Underappreciated and overlooked? Cazorla was injured for the six games after Ozil signed. When Cazorla returned to fitness, Wenger proved that Cazorla wasn’t underappreciated or overlooked. In fact, Cazrola’s quality prompted a rare change in tactic. Wenger had spent the last few seasons playing with more conventional wingers, Cazorla was far from that profile but that’s where he would play.
The right side of the pitch was reserved for the pace of Theo Walcott, but Wenger wasn’t shy of using attacking midfielders on the left. But, they were slightly more equipped to succeed in that role, Nasri had the raw qualities needed in a winger, so did Arshavin. But Wenger was willing to sacrifice the conventional to incorporate Cazorla. Arsenal lost speed on that side, but they gained guile; often playing the third pass before a goal, making so called ‘pre-assists,’ Cazorla epitomised what it means to be a team player. Ozil got a lot of attention that season. But Ozil was helped by having a player of equal creativity occupying defenders in a similar area.
A different player may have become frustrated with sacrificing parts of his game to enable another player to shine. But not Cazorla, he played with a smile that would become famous among Arsenal fans. Santi still found time to shine though, scoring THAT free-kick in the 2014 FA Cup final, and providing the assist for the equaliser too. He was a key performer on a day when the club and Wenger needed him most.
Cazorla proved dangerous on that side, defying expectations of what a Premier League winger needed to be. The thought at the time was that he could carry on making that role his own. However, Arsenal went big in the market again; this time bringing in Alexis Sanchez. So once more, a player was brought in to play the position occupied by Cazorla. He was going to have to adapt again to keep himself in the team.
If there were doubts over Cazorla being able to compete physically on a wing, then there would be even more doubts about him competing deeper centrally. Arsenal fans had long pined for central midfielders with the physical stature of Patrick Viera, so deploying a 5’5” attacking midfielder there would have baffled many. But Arsene Wenger was determined to get the Spaniard in the team, and Santi was always willing to evolve to stay there. He made more appearances than any other player that season. The little Spaniard occasionally played on the left, sometimes at 10, but mostly in that central midfield role.
One game that sticks in the memory when thinking of Cazorla in central midfield is an away day at the Etihad. He scored a penalty, set up a goal and danced in celebration, but it was how he absorbed pressure, held the ball and drove through the midfield that made him shine. This is just one example of Cazorla bossing a game from deep, there should have been more. Sadly, though, after missing only eight Premier League games in his first three seasons, the durable Cazorla started to give way.
A series of, not just career threatening, but potentially life changing injuries took root. He appeared in less than half of the league games in the 15/16 season, only eight league games in 16/17 and then missed the whole of 17/18. By the time Cazorla had returned to consistent fitness, Wenger had left and Cazorla followed. It’s no coincidence that the pair left at the same time. Speaking in 2020, Cazorla said, “If Arsene had stayed, maybe I would have stayed for one more year.”
Cazorla left the same way he arrived, quietly. But his legacy at Arsenal lives on. Young players at the club look up to his attitude and skill. In a recent interview, young Charlie Patino said “I adored Cazorla as a player … There’s something about Santi for me and the qualities he had – he was something else. As a midfield player there’s so much I can learn from him.” As well as his quality, lots can be learned from his willingness to reinvent himself and play different positions. Saka has displayed the same willingness and he played for England in a major tournament last night, Smith-Rowe is showing the same versatility and international football won’t be far away for him either. Maitland-Niles could learn a lot from Cazorla willingness to move around the pitch.
Wenger was looking for Arsenal to become more of a team when he signed Cazorla in 2012, and the Spaniard proved to be the catalyst for just that. Playing anywhere and willing to sacrifice parts of his game for the good of the team. A great player and a team player, who wasn’t shy to express his love for the club. He’ll always have a home at the Emirates and no doubt he’s already inspired many players that will go on to play there.
I’m a lifelong gooner in my early twenties, hailing from coastal North Wales. The passion for all things red and white is passed down from generation to generation in the Collins family, a gift and obsession that was first passed down by my Grandad, who was a regular at Highbury in the 60’s, it’s been a lifetime of sharing the pain and joy together ever since.
It was at a cold and wet trip to Manchester City that I caught the bug, a day that ended in a defeat to a Joey Barton penalty, it’s pretty much been down hill from there but I’m sure the glory days I’ve heard so much about will return and I’m here to document that journey.