When Arsenal first signed Santi Cazorla in summer 2012, he offered the north London club something uniquely different; ambidexterity, versatility and perhaps most importantly, goals from the middle of the park.
A cut above the likes of Tomaz Rosicky, Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere, the latter duo still finding their feet at top level, he was the cheaper yet equally acceptable alternative to Juan Mata, who Arsene Wenger had somehow surrendered to Chelsea the season previous.
Now however, he’s the playmaking effigy of Arsenal’s most intrinsic flaws and the squad’s dangerous imbalance. With rumours claiming Atletico Madrid, amongst others, are planning a January swoop for the Spain international, I’d argue it’s the right time for the Gunners to sell.
Not that I have anything against the cheeky-faced midfielder, but there are some cold hard truths to consider – particularly, Cazorla turning 30 years of age next week and his contract on the verge of entering its final eighteen months.
Arsenal may as well sell now while there’s still a market for the Spaniard; I’m sure we all remember the debacle of summer 2013 where unimaginable amounts were squandered in transfer fees and wages by letting Denilson, Andrei Arshavin, Park Chu-Young, Sebastian Scquillaci and Andre Santos all leave on free transfers due to a lack of demand.
Not that Cazorla will necessarily fall into the category of a high-earning clinger-on. Few dispute he’s a quality player and a tactically advantageous one at that, being well acquainted with a plethora of diverse midfield roles. His unique versatility can equally influence the course of any given ninety minutes as it does a whole season.
Yet, we’re still waiting for the Spain international to replicate the incredible output of his debut Premier League campaign. Twelve goals and eleven assists was a haul matching the likes of Juan Mata, Eden Hazard, Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez and Steven Gerrard that season, but few would discuss Cazorla in such company now.
His overall contribution remains impressive and consistent – Cazorla currently creates the third-most chances per match of any Arsenal player for example, behind Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez – but it’s nothing unprecedented at a club of Arsenal’s calibre.
In many ways, that highlights the crux of the issue – the paradoxical dilemma at its beating heart. Cazorla was once Arsenal’s best option in such progressive midfield capacities but now Arsene Wenger’s squad selections are almost burdened with endless like-minded choices for those roles.
Due to his ambidexterity alone – a sensational gift for any footballer – No.10 should be the Spaniard’s definitive position. He can spot passes and execute them on either side of the pitch without the necessity to turn or jostle his feet, maintaining the momentum of attacks.
Unfortunately however, he’s no longer the most talented, the most promising, the most dynamic, the most expensive or the most consistent No.10 in the Arsenal squad. Cazorla’s lost in the purgatory somewhere in between, often resulting in him being pushed out wide, into deep midfield or left out of the starting line-up all together.
Arsenal’s squad contains too many players of the same diminutive, creative mould and at some point over the next few transfer windows, Wenger will have to make some tough choices.
Gunners fans desperately desire that high-quality defensive-mid, but right now, there simply isn’t room for one in a roster that’s already seen seven different players, including Cazorla, feature in central midfield this season, ranging from Rosicky to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. They aren’t being played there out of choice; it’s Wenger’s compromise to get as much talent on the pitch as possible. There’s only one No.10 slot, after all.
So why Cazorla? Why not Flamini or Arteta? Why not Rosicky or Podolski? Why not Mesut Ozil? Fair points indeed, but the only one likely to leave the Emirates any time soon is Flamini when his contract expires in the summer. Rosicky and Arteta recently signed new deals, Ozil cost the club £42million just 18 months ago and for whatever reason, Wenger appears hell-bent on keeping hold of bit-part forward Podolski. If you think Wenger would dare part with Ramsey, Oxlade-Chamberlain or his pet project, Jack Wilshere, any time soon, you probably need to check your medication.
Unfortunately for Cazorla, he’s the wrong man at the wrong time, his age and contract status coinciding with Arsenal’s desperate need for more variety.
That may be an unpopular critique with some sectors of the Gunners fan base but ask yourself this simple question; would you accept Cazorla’s departure in January if it paved the way for a defensive midfielder next summer?