Criminally underrated throughout his career, due in large part to having to play behind two of the greatest ever in Xavi and Andres Iniesta for Spain, Santi Cazorla's recognition has only grown in the last two seasons, primarily because of his devastating absence. While many fans were not aware of him when he moved to Arsenal from Malaga in 2012, he has always been a favorite among players and coaches in his native country.
Fans globally are finally understanding why. Not even the most staunch Chelsea or Tottenham supporter could harbor any ill-feeling towards the "Spanish Magician", as the joy he brings to the game combined with his enduring smile is infectious and would make Ronaldinho proud. Arsene Wenger would be the first to tell you of Cazorla's quality, as Arsenal's hopes seem to lie at his mesmerizing feet.
Cazorla is always one of the first names on the team sheet, with Wenger claiming he "was the dominating player" at Arsenal.
Key word: was.
Not being able to turn to him for large portions of the past two seasons due to injury might end up being the defining feature of the final chapter of the Wenger era at Arsenal.
Arsenal's title challenge began to crumble last season in March after an Achilles injury ruled the midfielder out for the conclusion of the season. Another injury this season has shown signs of having the same disastrous consequences for the Gunners after a promising start to their campaign.
Cazorla has had a reasonably healthy career and to pick up his two biggest injuries at such vital times is extremely unfortunate. The club's hopes for a salvaging a successful campaign this term hinge on Cazorla returning to the fold as soon as possible. While Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez garner the headlines, there is arguably nobody more irreplaceable in this year's squad than Cazorla.
The Gunners simply aren't the same team without him, and that is apparent by the product they put on the field in his absence.
First, Arsenal fail the eye test without Cazorla. Time after time you'll hear commentators claiming that Arsenal were far from their best today or couldn't find their typical flowing passing game, as if that game were some type of a one-off, when the reality is that these type of labored performances are the norm rather than the exception without Cazorla.
Since Wenger made the unorthodox, but brilliant, decision to convert Cazorla to a defensive-minded center midfielder after an injury to Mikel Arteta, his impact on the game became even more pronounced. He is virtually always near the top of the Premier League in the number of passes completed per game and pass completion percentage, but, unlike his predecessor Arteta, he is not simply a metronome.
Cazorla is of course capable of playing simple sideways passes to keep things ticking for his team, but he combines that efficiency with brilliant balls forward with either foot, often showing a seemingly telepathic connection with Ozil. It is no surprise that the German is often a more peripheral figure in the Spaniard's absence.
PL assists this season:Mesut Ozil (king of assists) - 3
Kyle Walker - 5
— The Spurs Brain (@TheSpursBrain) January 14, 2017
His dribbling is as equally impressive as his passing. Again, the Spaniard uses his uncanny ambidexterity combined with his low center of gravity and footballing brain to quickly escape congested spaces in the midfield and transition Arsenal from defense to attack in the blink of an eye. His escapability is mesmerizing, as he regularly makes the impossible look routine, often leaving opponents with no other choice but to bring him down.
Santi Cazorla - Silky feetCome back soon! pic.twitter.com/kwPHjCOG9w— Arsenal Daily (@ArsenalFC_Daily) December 22, 2016
Ultimately, he is able to combine the practicality of possession with the expansiveness of creating chances better than anyone on the team and perhaps better than anyone in the entire Premier League. He is the best example for coaches to use when telling kids why they should work on improving their weaker foot.
Silk and guile will only get you so far in England though, eventually you will have to show a stronger side to your game, and Cazorla has done that remarkably well. While he certainly relies on his midfield partner of Francis Coquelin or Granit Xhaka to do most of the heavy lifting, Santi has shown a remarkable ability to not get muscled off the ball while also displaying a verve and desire to put his foot in and win tackles without accumulating yellow cards, something truly astonishing for a man who stands at only 5'5" and 150 lbs.
Finally, his importance to the team on set pieces is immense. His ambidexterity allows him to take both inswinging and outswinging corner kicks from either side of the pitch, and he has equally impressive delivery into the box for set pieces, often finding the head of Olivier Giroud.
After Alexis, he is probably the team's best weapon on shooting from free kicks, and he is undoubtedly the club's first-choice penalty taker, converting on eight out of his nine attempts for Arsenal.
With Cazorla's fingerprints all over the team, it would be a shock if the stats didn't illustrate his importance, but of course they do. Since the start of the 2014-15 season, Arsenal have won 66 percent of their Premier League games with Cazorla and only 39% of the games played without him. During that time, the team scores 1.92 goals per game with him and only 1.56 without him.
— OfficialAFC_ID (@OfficialAFC_ID) January 18, 2017
The team averages a goal differential of +1 per game with Santi and only a +.5 without him. The team even concedes .1 goals per game less with Cazorla (.92) than without him (1.04). These stats illuminate what was already very apparent, that Arsenal go from good to great when Cazorla is playing.
This year's injury to Cazorla will be particularly infuriating to Arsenal fans for a few reasons, most notably because it is a microcosm of the club's ineptitude with injury prevention and healing. Gooners already know the typical rule of thumb of doubling or tripling the time quoted by Wenger for how long a player will be out injured to get a more accurate timeframe on when they will actually return, but this instance was even worse.
Wenger told fans Cazorla would return in four days, but he is now expected to return no sooner than five months after the injury.
Cazorla was taken off as precaution near the end of a Champions League game against Ludagorets on October 19. He had been kicked in the ankle in the first half but played on until mid-way through the second half and said afterwards, "With the result in our favor, the boss decided to give me a rest."
The following game was in the EFL Cup, a game he would normally be rested in anyways, so his return was set for the following Premier League game against Sunderland. He didn't play in that game.
The games continued to pass without his name in the lineup and Wenger would use words like uncertain, likely and possible when asked if Cazorla would play. Fan's concerns grew, having seen this tragic comedy play out far too often over the years with the likes of Abou Diaby, Tomas Rosicky, Jack Wilshere and even Cazorla himself the previous year.
Then came the devastating news. Six weeks after the injury, Arsenal announced that Cazorla would need surgery and would be out for 12 weeks. If he had just had the surgery originally, he would have been half-way through his recovery. Of course, when you then add on an additional month or two of "Wenger-time," the result was that Cazorla would probably not be back until March, 2017.
News of the need for a second operation has made the recovery timetable even longer.
It's the type of gross miscalculation that would get most of us fired but seems to happen in the Arsenal physio office quite regularly. For Arsenal fans, the feeling is that these type of medical gaffs happen more to them than to all other teams in the Premier League combined. The club has certainly been unluckey regarding some of the injuries that have amassed over the years, but they've often been inept as well.
The result of this maddening calculus is that there is a great chance of March being far too late for Cazorla to make a difference. Beating Bayern Munich in the Champions League round of 16 was a tall order with Cazorla, and without him it will be near impossible.
But they were group winners this year, while Bayern finished second in their group behind Atletico Madrid. In the league, Arsenal are eight points off the pace. Their fourth round FA cup fixture will send them to St. Mary's to play Southampton, a team they have struggled mightily against in recent times.
With a series of late goals to rescue points this season, Arsenal have shown a mental strength lacking in previous years. With Cazorla, even the skeptical Arsenal fan could have seen the team challenging on multiple fronts from this position.
Without him, only the borderline-delusional fan can.
From the neutral perspective, the thinking is that Arsenal will lose to the Bavarian giants and exit the Champions League in the round of 16, battle for fourth place in the Premier League and perhaps make another run in the FA Cup. It's a severely disappointing destiny for a team that was playing so well before Cazorla got hurt and could still be extremely dangerous if they got him back now.
Before Cazorla's injury, they had recently thrashed now-breakaway leaders Chelsea 3-0 and were sitting atop their Champions League group. They had mixed style with steel and seemed a genuinely improved article from the prior year, when they finished second in the league and arguably would have won if not for an eerily similar Cazorla injury debacle. Since his injury, the results have dropped noticeably and the quality of the team's performances even more so.
The predictable question is what work did Wenger do to prevent a Cazorla injury from ruining the season for the second consecutive season? The predictable answer is nothing. But that's not quite true. The team splashed the cash for Xhaka, who looks to be a top-level central midfielder, though a different type of player than Cazorla.
Strangely enough, the Spaniard's most ready-made replacement is on loan, playing his football at AFC Bournemouth and cannot be recalled to Arsenal mid-year — you may have heard of him. After waiting for years for Wilshere to overcome injuries, Arsenal finally have the ideal situation in which they desperately need their prodigious young English midfielder and he is healthy enough to contribute.
The stars had seemed to have aligned, except they loaned him out for the season. The situation is sad for Arsenal fans and funny for everyone else, and it got even worse for Arsenal. After a recent injury to Coquelin and with Mohammad Elneny leaving for the Africa Cup of Nations, the Gunners are facing the prospect of having only two center midfielders for the next six weeks in Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey.
On one level you can sympathize with Wenger, because he wanted to get Wilshere the game time he needed to revive his career. But was this really such a hard scenario to envision? He knew Elneny would be away with his national team for over a month.
Needing Jack Wilshere, one of the best midfielders in the league on his day, to make a run at a trophy and not being able to use him because you gave him to another team for the year seems unforgiveable at this point.
— AFC Bournemouth (@afcbournemouth) January 12, 2017
But wait, there's more.
Wenger recently admitted that he could use Wilshere at the moment but said he didn't loan him out only until January 1 because "In the Premier League, it's season-long loans." This is simply not true. It is not only allowed, but also commonplace for clauses to be inserted into season-long loans in the Premier League allowing parent clubs to recall their players in January.
In fact, only a few days ago, Chelsea recalled Nathan Ake from his season-long loan to Bournemouth, the very same club Wilshere is at! Arsenal do not have that option because they forgot to build that clause into the loan contract, a shocking oversight for the Premier League's longest tenured manager and the club's top brass.
The very same people that pride themselves on gaining advantages through intelligence and sensibility rather than the through the brute force of money forgot to include a standard clause allowing them to recall one of the best young midfielders in the world should they need him, which they do. Let that sink in. If people were giggling about Arsenal's predicament before, it has now become a full on belly-laugh.
To exacerbate the problem, Wenger has been totally unwilling to shift formations to a system that better suits the available players. By switching to a 3-5-2 or 4-4-2, he could move Ozil slightly further from goal to be one of two central midfielders, giving Arsenal some depth in that position, while simultaneously allowing Giroud and Alexis to play together as strikers, solving the problem of how to find minutes for Giroud without displacing Sanchez from the striker role.
— PUMA Football (@pumafootball) January 12, 2017
Two birds could be killed with one stone. Tweaking the formation should at the very least be considered by Wenger, especially in this desperate time, but he has become wed to the 4-2-3-1 formation over the past few seasons and has shown no signs of changing. It was not too long ago that striker partnerships of Henry/Adebayor and Van Persie/Adebayor put up big numbers up front in North London.
With Giroud and Sanchez both in scintillating form, it seems now is the perfect time to pair them together and shift the pressure off of finding a direct replacement for Cazorla until he returns. Don't hold your breath, Arsenal fans.
Arsenal have reached a delicate time in their history, as the futures of Alexis, Ozil and Wenger remain uncertain. Their paths have somehow simultaneously become dependent on each other and dependent on winning something this season. Hanging in the balance is whether Arsenal can retain their stars and solidify themselves as one of the most ambitious clubs in the world or lose their talent and return to the second-tier status the club has been confined to for the past decade.
Not being able to rely on their most consistent performer in Cazorla during such a crucial time has been a cruel twist of fate. If they can defy the odds and put together a series of results until he's healthy, his return could springboard them into an era of glory. Otherwise, his second serious injury in as many years could be the first domino that sends the whole thing crashing to the ground.