Super Santi – Madrid’s loss is Arsenal’s gain

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There’s something about Santi Cazorla. He has a strange effect on people. Mention him and there it is: the wide eyes, the enthusiasm, the enjoyment, the sense of discovery, the fun. From Ruud van Nistelrooy escaping the sun at Málaga’s training ground and offering a judgment of unsolicited simplicity, to Xavi Hernández citing him as the embodiment of a footballing manifesto that has conquered all, there is something about him that brings out the fan in footballers. And in football managers.

“What a player Santi is,” said Van Nistelrooy puffing out his cheeks early last season, just weeks after becoming his team-mate for the first time. Xavi, signalling his chest, said: “Have you seen Santi Cazorla? You think I’m small? He’s up to here on me and he’s brilliant.” Neither man was asked to talk about Cazorla; both men, team-mates of his, chose to. As for Arsène Wenger, he called on every kid in the country to watch Cazorla play. And it was not just what he said that stood out as the way he said it. The look on his face.

Fifty caps for Spain – this Spain – say much, and Cazorla played a key role in winning Euro 2008, but he missed the 2010 World Cup through injury. The inevitable question runs: if he is so good, why did Madrid or Barcelona never sign him? The short answer is: they are Real Madrid and Barcelona. And Madrid tried. Twice.

In 2008 Cazorla was caught by TV cameras talking on the phone to Iker Casillas about his imminent move to Madrid, but Villarreal moved to block the transfer. And this week Pellegrini, his coach at first Villarreal and then Málaga, told Gazetta dello Sport that he had tried to sign him for Madrid the following season.

Those who knew Cazorla knew. “Anyone who has played with him knew that everyone in England would fall in love with him,” Marchena says. Joan Capdevila, Cazorla’s room mate at Villarreal, adds: “He does things you’ve never seen. You want to know how good Santi is? Type ‘Cazorla, Seitaridis’ into YouTube.”

The video is almost six years old, from the time that Cazorla spent at Recreativo de Huelva aged 21 to 22, a single-season hiatus in his seven years at Villarreal. In it, he flicks the ball from one foot to the other and through the legs of the Greek defender. It happens so fast you have to watch it again to appreciate the skill. And the problem, Capdevila says, is that few even watched it the first time: “If he had done that in the Champions League it would have gone round the world.”

The technique is natural. Watch the Spanish national team do piggy-in-the-middle drills and you can see it. The ball whizzes round so fast, so precisely, that even very good players, world champions, can be made to look average. Cazorla is emphatically not one of them. Sit close and the speed can be dizzying. Cazorla barely flinches. Pass, pass, pass, right foot, left. “I played with him for five years and I still don’t know if he is right footed or left footed, even from corners and free-kicks: it’s insane,” Capdevila says.

Recreativo’s manager Marcelino says: “I had first seen him as a kid playing in Asturias but I’d lost track of him. When Recre signed him, we quickly realised that he was special. He was extremely clever.” “He reads the game so well,” says Antonio Fernández. “His movement with and without the ball is exceptional and his always takes the right decision. He improves those around him, playing for them not just himself.”

“Santi is always available: he never, ever hides,” says Capdevila. “He is a real leader. Not in the sense of shouting at people: he is not aggressive, he doesn’t confront the referee, but he is a winner. He’s extremely stubborn and very determined. Even off the pitch: even when we play cards or on the PlayStation, he always wants to win.” Capdevila talks from experience: Cazorla jokes that the “one time” Capdevila beat him, he took a photo of the screen as proof to show his team-mates .

“I have watched him closely on the pitch for a long time and one of the things I don’t think people see is that capacity to suffer, to read the game and know how to adapt: when to be practical, when to be expansive,” Marchena says. “He is also always there for you, in all games, injured or not. His commitment, for someone so talented, is extremely unusual. For weaker players, sure. But not for someone like him.”

When Cazorla left Villarreal, Senna said he felt like the team had cut off a finger. They had qualified for the Champions League in his last season; in their first without him, they went down. Senna explains: “When Santi left, it left a huge hole. Both on the pitch and off it. If he had been there I am sure we would not have gone down. He is a player who never loses the ball. He’s so complete: he knows when to pause, when to accelerate; he imposed a style and dynamism on the team. He interprets the game so well. And without him, we lost our identity, our way of playing.”

While Villarreal went down, Cazorla’s new club, Málaga qualified for the Champions League for the first time in their history. And, when financial crisis hit, he left them too. Wenger was ready to take advantage. The perfect player, perfectly suited to his new environment.

Read Sid Lowe’s entire article, “Why Arsenal are lucky to have Santi Cazorla, Spain’s best kept secret” on the guardian’s website.

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