”… I know him as a player really well. And he’s a top player. He has got unbelievable quality and talent…”
When Spain lined up with no striker at Euro 2012, most were surprised. Others weren’t. They had seen a glimpse of it before. In their final Euro 2012 Qualifier against Scotland, with Spain already qualified, they experimented. The striker, David Villa, was pushed wide left. Pedro Rodriguez started on the right flank. In the middle was David Silva. He would play as the false 9. Spain won it 3-1. Silva scored two and assisted the other.
But that was not all that happened on that October night in Alicante. In midfield, Spain had no Andres Iniesta. Neither was Xabi Alonso there. Cesc Fabregas was missing too. Alongside Xavi Hernandez and Sergio Busquets, completing the midfield 3, was Santiago Cazorla Gonzalez.
Santi Cazorla is predominantly thought of as a winger. On that night however, he was asked to perform a role that wingers usually don’t perform. Move the ball around. Keep possession. Ping and zip it around, waiting for the spaces in the opposition defence to manifest. Wingers don’t do this. Wingers are direct, running at their man, beating them, getting to the byline to cross it. Wingers start, stop, then start again. Central midfielders pause.
Santi though delivered the pause magnificently. Were it not for Silva’s contribution, he would probably have been named the man of the match.
This is what Arsenal and their fans should expect in the coming season. Quick, versatile, skillful. All words synonymous with Santi’s abilities. Last season in La Liga, he was being taunted as the best of the rest. The best of the alternatives as it is now known in Spain. The best outside FC Barcelona and Real Madrid.
Now, that bizarre reality in Spain has struck again. If you are good enough, you either play in Madrid or Barcelona. If not, try your luck abroad. David Silva did it two seasons ago. Juan Mata did it last season. Add Santi Cazorla to that list.
Santi has never been an out and out winger per se. Hardly will you find him hugging the touchline in Antonio Valencia fashion. He is more of a false 11, a central winger. Starting on the wing but looking for spaces in the middle to exploit. Think Alan Dzagoev for Russia at Euro 2012. Think Samir Nasri for Manchester City. Think Cristiano Ronaldo.
Ronaldo is the best exponent of this position. His time at Real Madrid (and indeed Manchester United) has shown it by the astronomical amount of goals he has managed to score from the wing position. He is not a conventional winger. Neither is Cazorla.
The difference though between Ronaldo and Cazorla is that whereas Ronaldo looks for spaces in the middle so as to get into goal scoring opportunities, Cazorla does so so as to create. It is this that makes him overall a more all rounded player. His vision is incredible. His passing sublime. And unlike Ronaldo, he does not mind tracking back to assist in the team’s defensive duties.
These assets are the ones that make him more versatile. More adaptable to a central midfield position. It is these qualities that have persuaded Arsene Wenger to finally buy him. However, it is a signing that has come a year late for Arsenal. Ear marked by Wenger as one of the potential transfer targets last season, Wenger abandoned him to pursue Juan Mata. By the time he lost out on Mata, Cazorla had already signed for Malaga. But ironically now, the financial difficulties at Villareal that allowed Malaga to get him, are the same difficulties that have allowed Arsenal to get their man. It is a case of better late than never for Wenger.
So where will he play? There is a multitude of wingers at Arsenal, ranging from the pace of Theo Walcott and Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain, to the unpredictability of Gervinho. New recruit Lukasz Podolski can also play on the wing, and do not forget the Russian, Andrei Arshavin.
In all honesty, Cazorla is, by virtue of quality better than all these. But it is the dearth in the attacking midfield zone that he is probably going to fill. Tomas Rosicky remains injury prone. Jack Wilshere, though not necessarily an attacking midfielder, also remains on the treatment table. And there is apparently no faith in the Welshman, Aaron Ramsey. Cazorla may just prove to be the solution.
The solution is bound to be seamless. Just as that of the other Spaniard, Mikel Arteta was. And where Arteta brought some pause to the midfield, some calm and composure, more thinking, more intelligence, Santi is bound to do the same to Arsenal’s attack.
At Villareal, the players referred to him as their very own Ronaldinho – because he was ‘just as funny, just as ugly and just as good’. At Malaga, he was welcomed as a prince. How the Arsenal fans now hope that he is ready for his crowning moment. And that it will coincide with him lifting them out of the doldrums of the trophy less seasons.