I was 10 years old when the news broke that Santa Claus wasn’t real. It happened as my brother was asking some pretty probing questions to my mum in the kitchen. She managed to deflect most of them but her goose was cooked when he asked her why dad insisted on leaving out beer for Santa rather than milk; with a smile creeping across her face, my dreams were shattered. I was only 10 at the time, too young to let go off the belief of the big man in the red suit; and it’s at the age of 27 that I find myself in a similar position - with news that the club may not be willing to offer Santi Cazorla an extension to his contract.
The prospect of a Santi-less life is one that no Arsenal fan should have to endure, at least not at the tender age of 27. Arsenal have been, I guess, hugely unfortunate to be without the diminutive Spaniard for the majority of the season. We may tell ourselves, as Arsenal fans, to expect to be without key players for large swathes of the season but nothing can prepare you for the loss of Santi. His presence in the team enables so many other players. He is our most comfortable ball-playing midfielder. His two-footedness, a facet that many of the best wingers in the world struggle to emulate, makes him unique. Before his injury, Wenger spoke about him being the ‘dominant’ player in our squad. That is Santi Cazorla, all 5ft 6 inches of him. Dominant. It’s absurd! But anyone who has watched him closely over the past few years would recognise how integral he is to the Arsenal set up. His partnership with Coquelin, whilst a syndicate of need rather than ideal pairing, has given Arsenal their most balanced partnership in years. Arsenal have essentially been able to play a non-footballing entity in Conquelin due to Cazorla’s skill and capacity to augment the Frenchman’s ability. What makes it all the more pleasing, is that he has done so through sheer skill rather than any particular know-how or experience of the position.
His change of position at such a late stage in his career serves to endear him to all football fans, not just Arsenal fans. No longer encompass the requisite physical attributes to beat a player on the wing? No problem, let’s try him in centre midfield. To put that into context, there are only 10 players smaller than the Spaniard to have played competitively in the league. What’s not to love? And that smile, like a fella who walks into a bar with a supermodel on his arm – it’s as if he knows he’s punching above his weight but he’s happy to bask in the glow of it. His exuberance, his style of play, his ill equipped physique all add up to create the unlikeliest of heroes.
But therein lies the beauty – it is not solely that he is so ill-suited for the role but that he excels in it. His ability to escape the attention of opposing midfielders is less Matt Damon Bourne Identity-esque all out action and more Cary Grant North by Northwest subtle subterfuge. He bewilders opponents with his ability to scamper out of tight spaces, not with any real audacity but purely with a sense of purpose and need. There are no impudent demonstrations of showboating or audacious attempts to mock opponents, rather a horses for courses mentality where the minimal will suffice.
Since his injury, Arsenal have struggled in his absence. Granit Xhaka is willing to take the ball in areas that Coquelin and Elneny can only dream off but the Swiss quarterback relies on his long range passing to get him out of problem areas – a strategy that isn’t always reliable if there are no players in better positions. Ramsey, for all his ability, can often struggle with the basic capacity to retain possession, habitually trying an ill-advised flick or turn with neither thought nor concern for consequence. Cazorla, on the other hand, is confident to relieve pressure from his colleagues by receiving the ball in areas of unyielding pressure and evade capture through footwork and quickness of thought. Few centre midfielders are capable of such feats: Rakitic, Modric, Thiago Alcantara are a few that spring to mind – but there are none in the Premier League capable of doing what Santi can do.
This is not to say that the Spaniard is perfect. His presence often leaves much to be desired when defending setpieces, he lacks the stamina to truly dominate midfield and his age means that sooner or later we are going to have to find a suitable method of playing without him. But quite simply, I don’t want to. I was too young when I found out that Santa Clause wasn’t real, please Arsene don’t take Santi away too.
Til next time,