Santi's back this weekend – but how much of Arsenal's woe is down to his absence?
If interminable inquests are your thing, forget the Chilcot inquiry – try hanging around with Arsenal fans, or following a couple of them on Twitter. The agonising, self-righteous autopsy they are conducting over this season rumbles on and on, yet most of those conducting it seem to have overlooked a key piece of evidence – the absence since the turn of year of Santi Cazorla.
It’s easy to forget that Cazorla was once Arsenal’s star man. He arrived in the summer of 2012, alongside Olivier Giroud and Lukas Podolski. It was a more promising transfer window for the Arsenal faithful: although Arsene Wenger was still not shopping at the top boutiques, he had at least stopped stumbling around Poundland, with a basket of Chamakhs and Sylvestres.
Throughout his first season, Cazorla was the team’s standout performer. He was named man of the match on his debut, and went on to play more games than any other squad member, an ever-present in the league. The fans voted him player of the year and chanted his name to the tune of the White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army.
Santi’s cheeky smile and genial air only bolstered his appeal; such a pleasant contrast to his predecessor, the strangely unlikeable Samir Nasri. Forget the ‘fat Spanish waiter’ insult hurled at Rafa Benitez, Cazorla looks like a cool Spanish waiter.
No, let’s be precise: he looks like the warm, twinkly eyed manager of a cosy, basement wine bar who would lavish you with olives, Rioja and ribaldry until eventually, after continental hugs, you staggered into the early-morning light.
Cazorla loks like the warm, twinkly-eyed manager of a cosy, basement wine bar who would lavish you with olives, Rioja and ribaldry
Out of sight, out of mind
He may not have been quite the marquee name the fans were craving, but the little Spaniard proved in his first season to be creative, effective and likeable, pointing the way to a brighter future after the austerity of the early Emirates years. What could possibly diminish the love the fans felt for him?
A pair of superstar signings, that’s what.
In the two summers that followed Cazorla's arrival, Wenger finally dug deep into his pocket to bring two world-class names to N5. First came the wondrous Mesut Ozil, surely the club’s most exciting acquisition since Dennis Bergkamp. The following summer, he was followed by Alexis Sanchez. The dynamic and doggish Chilean arrived fresh from his star role at the 2014 World Cup.
Football fans are the most fickle of folk, offering a small fraction of the loyalty they expect of players. Sure enough, many Arsenal fans responded to these thrilling, A-list signings like the proverbial kid in a toy shop, turning their eyes away from their Spanish midfielder to gaze at the glittering new products.
Yet Cazorla continued to work his magic. He was the star of the team’s winning FA Cup runs in 2014 and 2015. On the road to Wembley for the first of the finals, he scored against Spurs and Coventry City, before netting the winning penalty in the tense semi-final shootout against Wigan Athletic.
In the final, after the Gunners went two goals behind against Hull City, it was the Spaniard who provided the match-changing moment. He won a free-kick and then curled the resultant set-piece beyond the outstretched hand of Hull’s Allan McGregor.
Aaron Ramsey would go on to take the plaudits for his extra-time winner, but it was Cazorla who had turned the tide when some of his team-mates were still asphyxiated with shock.
When Wenger’s men returned to Wembley for a second successive final they steamrolled over the hapless Aston Villa. Theo Walcott’s opener and Alexis’s wonder goal are vivid memories of the day, but most writers and pundits named Cazorla the man of the match.
Forever passing and probing, his intelligent contribution was a sight to behold. Particularly effective in the first half, it was he who set the tone for one of the most one-sided finals of the modern era.
The Cazorla of 2014/15 was an upgrade. He bulked up, added a slice of tackling to his game, and continued to sweep up and down the pitch with ease
His Wembley performance was the culmination of a valuable campaign for Cazorla. While too many fans and pundits had been licking their lips over Alexis and squabbling over Ozil, Santi had been forming an impressive understanding with Francis Coquelin in midfield.
The Cazorla of 2014/15 was, if anything, an upgrade on previous campaigns. He bulked up, added a slice of tackling to his game, and continued to sweep up and down the pitch with an ease that belied his somewhat barrel-esque frame.
He was often the lynchpin of the team’s familiar, flowing play as Arsenal became the ‘league champions’ of the calendar year of 2015. But then a combination of Achilles and knee injuries forced him out of action for the second half of this season. Soon enough, the previously imperious Gunners were dropping points and sinking out of contention for a genuine championship.
In 2016, the Gunners have won just nine out of 23 matches. How big a factor in this depressing droop was the absence of Cazorla? The way the fluidity of 2015 vanished was most telling. The graceful, one-touch play so beloved by Wenger was replaced by an ugly, staccato approach, despite the fact Arsenal had its strongest squad in nine years.
Why? In part, becasue the team had lost a man who could sweep play through the middle of the park, who could get the ball out of tight spaces and play cute passes. Yet Gunners fans were so busy hurling abuse at Wenger and Giroud that it scarcely occurred to them to wonder what difference Cazorla’s absence had made.
Of course there are other reasons for the Gunners’ pathetic collapse in the second half of the campaign, and at 31, even a fully fit Cazorla – who returns to squad contention this weekend – is not a long-term answer.
Citing his absence as a big factor in the team’s poor form this year might not carry the same indignant thrill of blaming Wenger, nor the pitchfork hatred of scapegoating Giroud, but if this excruciating inquest is to continue, let’s at least consider how different things might have been had the cheeky chipmunk had stayed fit.