There are many reasons why Arsenal miss Santi Cazorla, but the simple joy of seeing him play is by far the biggest.
Fewer things make me happier than seeing Santi Cazorla pirouette with the ball in midfield, making an opposition player look stupid. Alexis Sanchez has his tricks, and Mesut Ozil has his classy touches, but they don’t come close to the sheer majesty of a squat, ambidextrous Spaniard wriggling his way through challenges with nothing but immaculate ball control.
It helped, of course, that Cazorla was a key part of Arsenal’s set-up.
He set the tempo of Arsenal’s attacks, punched holes into opposition defences from deep and evaded pressure with ease. I still have fond memories of his performance against Manchester City in 2015 where he was untouchable. Any time a City player got close to him, he’d either move the ball on or slip away.
Then there was his performance in that 3-0 win over Manchester United the following season, and the enduring image of him leading Bastien Schweinsteiger on a merry dance. He was difficult for opposition teams to pin down and that really helped Arsenal control games.
Granit Xhaka possesses similar passing ability but is a different mould of player altogether. He’s far more static in style, more likely to ping a 50-yard pass onto the toe of a forward than he is charge up the field with the ball at his feet. With enough time and space, he’ll punish teams with his passing. However, there are times where it seems that’s all he has.
Shut down his passing and you largely shut down the player.
This one-note play style seems epidemic across most of Arsenal’s midfield options.
Francis Coquelin can run all day and put his foot in, but he’s not an outstanding passer or dribbler, nor does he protect the space behind him all that well. Mohamed Elneny is another who can run all day and use the ball sensibly, but apart from the odd well-struck effort from distance, he’s not going to hurt the opposition with the ball.
Even Aaron Ramsey, for all his skill, is a player who hurts teams more with his off-the-ball movement than his ability with the ball. That leaves Jack Wilshere as the only player comparable to Cazorla in terms of variety of play, but we all know the story with Jack.
Variety is important for an Arsenal team that can, at times, get stuck in a monotonous rhythm of ineffective sideways passing. Cazorla could be part of that, but he could also change it.
He can play long-range passes from deep, but he can also play in tight areas up front and slip in cute passes between defenders. He can beat players with the ball. He knows how to position himself on the pitch and can play with discipline if need be. During the dizzy heights of that Cazorla-Coquelin partnership, it was like he could play two midfield roles on his own.
Without Cazorla, Arsenal’s two-man midfield struggles to cover all the necessary bases.
The Xhaka and Ramsey partnership is promising but not as press resistant or as disciplined as you’d like it to be. Replace either one with Elneny or Coquelin and you strengthen the defence, but weaken the attack in the process. The trick Arsenal missed last summer was not signing a replacement for him, nor not adapting their midfield to cope without him.
Now 33 and coming off a year-long absence, it’s doubtful that Cazorla will be as good as he used to be if he’s even able to play again at all given the severity of the problems he suffered.
Arsenal will need to replace him regardless.
Nonetheless, I dream of the the day he returns to our midfield and shines again with that big infectious smile on his face.
He could make Arsenal fun again, if only for one game.