There are few footballers more universally popular than Santi Cazorla. There is an oft-spouted cliche about players who play with a smile on their face, but in Cazorla’s case it’s a legitimate observation. He seems to flash a grin every time the ball arrives at his feet.
The Arsenal fans react in identical fashion, for they know what those feet are capable of. The Gunners’ diminutive diamond is able to conjure the magic required to deceive even the most attentive marker. He’s an all-round entertainer. Disliking Cazorla is akin to taking against Christmas or kittens: it can only explained by a psychosis or an allergy.
Since the turn of the year, Cazorla’s form has been little short of sensational. His resolution for 2015 appears to have been to light up the stadiums and screens of the football-watching public, and he is delivering in style.
This is probably the best form of his Arsenal career. His first season in north London saw him reach double figures for both goals and assists before being crowned as the club’s Player of the Year. However, he is scaling even greater heights this season. Playing in a deeper role, he has shown a remarkable capacity to combine feats of outrageous skill with unglamorous labour.
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That shouldn’t come as too big a surprise: Cazorla has never lacked bravery. It might not be the quality you immediately associate with the Spanish international, but it can manifest in different forms. Cazorla has always had the nerve to attempt the audacious, holding on to the ball under pressure that ordinary players could not withstand.
This season he has added a willingness to get stuck in to the midfield melee. The sight of Cazorla sliding in to a tackle to steal possession before whirling away on another slaloming run has become increasingly common. The delicate playmaker is becoming the complete midfielder, while remaining every bit as easy on the eye.
Unsurprisingly, Cazorla’s form has attracted admiring glances from elsewhere. Atletico Madrid are said to be at the head of the queue, eager to tempt a player who recently turned 30 in to a move back to his native Spain.
Arsenal will be fiercely resistant to any such bid.
Not only did they tie Cazorla down to a new contract less than a year ago, but they will also be loathe to lose a player who has emerged as one of their technical leaders. There are different kinds of leadership, and like Robert Pires and Tomas Rosicky before him, Cazorla’s attitude and astonishing level of skill can serve as a guide to younger players. In Arsenal’s last match against Middlesbrough, Cazorla wore the captain’s armband for the first-time. It felt like a significant moment: Arsene Wenger has acknowledged the inspirational power of his sensational Spaniard.
With Aaron Ramsey out with a hamstring injury and Jack Wilshere only at the tentative outset of his latest comeback, Cazorla could be tasked with playing from central midfield alongside Francis Coquelin at Crystal Palace this weekend. Against the physical pairing of James McArthur and Mile Jedinak, it will be a significant test. However, Cazorla has the class and courage to clear the hurdle.
Arsenal’s tiny talisman is standing tall.
Read more from James McNicholas (a.k.a @gunnerblog) here