Pyrotechnics? DJ-come-superfan Giles Peterson laying down some frisky beats? Thierry Henry swapping punditry for presenting? Five Arsenal players stood on a podium like Action Men on a warm evening in north London in front of a crowd of chanting Gooners? It can only mean one thing – the 2015/16 Arsenal kit launch!
Arsenal sponsors PUMA invited us at Football Fancast down to the Emirates on Monday to take a peek at the club’s snazzy attire for the coming campaign and they certainly didn’t disappoint, treating us to a slap up fish’n’chips in The Foundery before sorting a little mano-e-mano time with the cheekiest chappy of Premier League playmaking, Santi Cazorla.
Gunners fans are particularly fond of the Spain international and it’s not hard to see why; as well as majestically marauding his way around Arsenal’s midfield for the last three seasons – producing an emphatic return of 24 goals and 30 assists in 106 Premier League appearances – he also never stops smiling. Seriously, this guy could watch the death scene from Bambi and still have a grin from ear to ear.
It’s been a big season for the north London and an even bigger one for Cazorla, revitalising himself in a newfound central midfield role to come third in the club’s Player of the Year poll. So with the 30 year-old speaking at PUMA’s Arsenal home kit launch, we were keen to hear his opinions on the Gunners’ campaign, his own two-footed ingenuity, the rise of Francis Coquelin, the FA Cup win and just about everything in between.
How do you rate this season and what are your expectations for the next campaign?
We finished the season very strong, it’s important to notice that we finished with an FA Cup win. We would obviously like to prepare ourselves a lot better for the upcoming season, possibly for a better placement in the Champions League as well as the Premier League.
Talking about the Champions League; obviously in the last two years Barcelona and Real Madrid have won. How far do you think the English clubs are from that standard?
We have to fight against La Liga – teams like Real Madrid and Barcelona – which today have some of the best players in the world. It’s something we have to aspire to and try to position ourselves in that sense. Not that the Premier League is inferior. However, we have to consider a variety of other leagues; not just La Liga but also the Bundesliga which is also very strong. So it’s our desire to continuously better ourselves and position our team and the Premier League at a much higher standard.
A vital win over Manchester City at the Etihad in January seemed to be the real turning point in Arsenal’s campaign. Before the 2-0 victory, the north Londoners had won just ten out of 21 Premier League fixtures and spent only five matchdays in the top four; after it, they lost just twice in their 16 remaining games, catalysing a third-place finish. It also marked the Gunners’ first away victory over reigning Premier League champions since October 2011.
It was a telling 90 minutes for Cazorla as well. He started the game in central midfield alongside the surprise package of the season, Francis Coquelin, and went on to maintain that role for the remainder of the campaign.
What do you remember of the Manchester City game?
It was an extremely important game for us, especially after we’d lost earlier 6-3. And winning this game 2-0 was something that immediately gave a new energy to the team, a lot more ambition to get to the next level. So for us these moments are extremely crucial to move forward.
Could you have played central midfield regularly when you first came to Arsenal?
You’re right, that is the first game I played centre but it wasn’t a new position for me; I played this position in other teams as well. I felt very comfortable there, very strong. And at the end of the day I’m here to help my team and do the best that I can. If the manager tells me that’s where I’ve got to be, that’s where I’m going to be.
Is it better for the squad if younger players like Francis Coquelin develop to first team level, even if it means going out on loan, rather than making a host new signings every summer?
I think it’s important for a player to go out and find where he can play. If he can’t find the minutes here he might go out and find them there. What we saw when he [Coquelin] came back was a great maturity. We saw something similar in Hector Bellerin. The maturity level when they came back was a lot stronger, so when they settled themselves back in with the team, obviously it makes the team a lot stronger.
Cazorla’s a rather unusual Premier League player. We’re transfixed by height and power in England, but the 5 foot 6 Spaniard continually defies that obsession. He’s also blessed with perhaps the greatest gift any footballer could ask for; an almost seamless, parallel ability with both feet.
Did your size limit opportunities when you were younger? Over the course of your career, has being a smaller player helped or hindered you?
When I was younger it was definitely something that effected my career. There were teams that were interested in me but wouldn’t sign me because I wasn’t tall enough. However, the game changed, not only for power and height but also for the technical aspect of the game. That’s something very important to me. I was able to make myself a player not because I lacked height but because I had the talent and technique to do so.
Have you always been ambipedal or has it taken a lot of work on the training pitch?
Being able to use both feet was something that came quite naturally to me ever since I started playing. However, it’s something I work on all the time to make sure that level never gets any lower.
If you could give one piece of advice to a young player trying to improve their weaker foot, what would it be?
Everything comes from a base of hard work. What I would do after training is stay half an hour and kick the ball against a wall with my weaker foot over and over again to make sure it gets stronger. And young players should remember that everything comes from hard work, so never give up.
And if you could settle the debate once and for all, do you have a favoured foot?
I’ve always preferred my right foot. Ever since I was young, that was my preferred foot. I had a little injury in my right ankle and therefore I started to use my left foot a lot more. However, you have to use both.
It’s the summer transfer window – or silly season, to use its more appropriate name. So we felt duty bound to quiz Cazorla on his Arsenal future, amid reports speculating he could be returning to La Liga before the start of next season.
Are there any truth in them? Can you see yourself returning to Spain before you retire?
For the time being, Arsenal is my home. I’m not thinking about the future I live day by day and right now Arsenal is my way. It’s my life.
Obviously, it’s a very exciting time of year for the fans. Can you remember how you felt when Mesut Ozil arrived at the Emirates in 2013 and Alexis Sanchez the summer after?
I got very excited, it’s extremely important to see how everyone gets excited. The more players of the calibre of Alexis and Mesut that join the better I will become as a player and the better the team will become.
That connection between Ozil and Sanchez seems to be getting stronger by the game, doesn’t it?
It’s quite normal that they would find a blossoming relationship with each other because they are both players of such a very high level. Because of their style of play their games combine together, and the best thing for us is the team is stronger because of it.
Arsenal finished the season in scintillating style. Some absolutely majestic displays saw them roar up the league table to record their highest final standing in four years and their second-highest points total since 2007-08 campaign. Retention of the FA Cup, via a 4-0 thumping of Aston Villa at Wembley, was the cherry on the cake and now many are tipping the Gunners to forge their most viable title charge for a decade next season.
What needs to improve to make the team better for next season?
One of the things that the team has to focus on a lot more is mental toughness and concistency. There have been games we haven’t won that we should have. And basically just be a lot more regular, a lot more consistent, and use that mental toughness in order to get to the next level.
Can you catch reigning champions Chelsea?
I see we have a very strong team. What we need to work on is consistency and our mental toughness. We know we can do that. Yes Chelsea is strong, yes they won the Premier League, but without a doubt we have a team that is strong enough to do so. We just have to work on fine tuning.
Gracias Santi! Don’t stop smiling!