Tuesday, December 7, 2021

The Santi Clause

This weekend past, I slipped up. Following Santi Cazorla’s pretty harrowing interview with Marca and the gruesome pictures that accompanied it, I started watching Santi Cazorla compilation videos. The first one I chanced upon had a section entitled “Take Ons” that lasted for seven and a half minutes. I submitted to the majesty therein.

The series of sashays, pirouettes and sleight of foot treasures had me transfixed and I began to reflect on what a special player he is and how much I miss watching him. One of the tragedies of life is that, as Joni Mitchell sang, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. There are players in the current squad I like and when they are gone I will miss them and I will look back at my current self and wonder why I didn’t treasure them more.

I know this, yet it’s impossible to avoid. Only perspective truly brings greatness into its correct cosmic order. I describe my decision to watch Cazorla compilations as a “slip” for a number of reasons. Firstly, I still haven’t quite learned to appreciate the subtle art of the video compilation. I’m a man of prose, I prefer to appreciate a player’s talents through language. I am hopelessly out of touch in 2017 because I would still prefer to read an article.

But Cazorla is one of those rare players that continually defies words. In many ways, he escapes categorisation. Which position does he play? You’d probably just say “midfield” wouldn’t you? Indeed, Arsene Wenger struggled to get to grips with where best to utilise his talents. In his first season, he was a number 10. But his passing radar was so wide and his feet so beguiling, that the trequartista role was almost too limiting.

This was a player that could help you control the middle of the pitch through force of technique. He played a wandering left-sided role shortly after Mesut Özil joined in an attempt to fuse his talents with the German’s. In a creative sense, Özil was appointed as marksman, while Cazorla dropped into deeper areas, like a long range sniper. His remit was to help Arsenal build play.

But he really found his niche in a deeper role alongside Francis Coquelin. There he became a pivote and helped Arsenal build play from inside their own half. This was especially important as Mikel Arteta’s fitness became less reliable. His lightning quick feet and ability to switch play sped up the evolution of the Gunners’ attacks.

He almost became a “cheat player” in the middle of the park, gene splicing Arsenal’s approach play with wing of bat and eye of newt. His physical appearance further invites endearment, a smiley, pocket sized, squirrel faced schemer in the heart of the engine room, slaloming between the legs of the bigger boys as he slips a frog into their blazer pocket and makes haste.

At times, he assumed the form of an animated figure in a platform game, leaping over chimneys and gobbling up gold coins as he left another school of midfield bullies tangled in his wake. He is one of those players that invites that half gasp, half laughter kind of noise that crowds make when they are truly taken by surprise.

As he spins his way past one and nutmegs another in quick succession, he would draw a glottal “ah!” from the crowd. That’s our Santi. Cazorla’s technical precision is faultless. He demonstrates the true multi-faceted value of being a two footed player. Being ambidextrous doesn’t just mean that you can strike the ball with both feet when the need arises, there are other fringe benefits too.

It gives players an elasticity that enables them to wriggle free of markers. If you can play on either side, it opens up the space available to you and the defender has no recourse to try and show you onto your weak foot. But having two good feet assists balance too and we see that consistently through Cazorla’s low centre of gravity.

At times, he looks like a weeble as he snakes his way through a forest of challenges. Sometimes he has almost entirely fallen over, but is able to manoeuvre himself upright again like a break dancer. His favourite trick is to shuffle the ball between his two feet, before sauntering away from a flailing leg. It’s almost as if both of his feet are so good that they have decided to forget about the game and just play with one another, like a supermodel admiring his own gaze in the mirror.

The other reason I described my relapse into the comforting Santi blanket as a ‘slip’ is, well, because I don’t want to think about him like he’s finished. Or dead. Or retired. For one thing, it’s the easiest trick in the book to write about the guy that isn’t there as the much longed for hero. For a writer, it’s too easy a trope at times, because nostalgia clouds memory and nobody can disprove your contention that if this player were fit, everything would be alright.

It’s a trap fans fall into quite easily too. A few weeks ago, Ramsey, Özil, Alexis and Lacazette tore Everton to ribbons at Goodison Park. Yet it was Jack Wilshere’s name that was sung persistently throughout. For obvious and understandable reasons, we are desperate for Jack to be our saviour. Though well meaning, I am not convinced that is entirely helpful at times.

We have been here before with badly injured players. Abou Diaby was a wildly inconsistent player who veered between brilliance and incompetence. He is largely remembered for the former because of the stain of tragedy that blighted his career. It wasn’t just the cycle of injury and recovery that made him inconsistent either. In 2008-09, he managed 39 games, and in 2009-10, he played 45 and he was very up and down in both.

Eduardo’s quality is probably played up a tad in hindsight too because of the sympathy we feel for him. Ramsey came back from a horrific injury unaffected, so his career does not have the same tinge of ‘what if?’ to it and therefore, he no longer gets the soft treatment. Thomas Vermaelen’s injury in 2010-11 was seen as a key reason for the Gunners’ failure to maintain their title push, until the next season when he returned and we realised he wasn’t the Belgian Maldini we thought that we remembered.

The point is, there is a fair amount of projection that goes on when a player is injured for a long period. With Santi it’s slightly different. His potential wasn’t destroyed by injury. He picked up his nagging achilles issue in his 30s after a few full, injury free seasons. We are not making predictions or filling in the gaps, we already know what we’re missing.

Arsenal were still a pretty flawed team when Cazorla was in it, so let us not pretend he would have cured us of all ills. I’m pretty certain that with a fit Santi, Arsenal would have finished in the top 4 last season. But more than that, I guess I just miss that little sprinkle of magic that he brought to every game. Like Patrick Vieira’s chapeaus, you were always guaranteed at least one Cazorla party trick per 90.

There are few Arsenal players that do not divide opinion. Even Alexis and Özil, the team’s ‘billboard players’, piss a sizeable section of people off. Cazorla probably sits alongside Koscielny as the only player that the vast majority are convinced by. (Nacho Monreal is moving into this territory too). Cazorla’s absence has been amplified by the departures of Tomas Rosicky and Mikel Arteta. As a result, the technical level of the current squad has diminished greatly.

If you were going to create an Arsene Wenger like player in a laboratory somewhere, Santi Cazorla is probably what would come out- Arsenal’s own test tube baby. I hope more than anything, I get to watch him in an Arsenal shirt again. I hope that I get another opportunity to write about what his skills bring to this team without the large side order of ‘what if?’.

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