Santi Cazorla was Arsenal’s release valve. And still, almost four years since he last played for the club, they are yet to replace him.
The brilliance of Santi Cazorla was his escapability. Time and again, the diminutive Spaniard would wriggle free, turning and twisting his way past, through and around futile attempts to dispossess him, leaving a swathe of tangled legs and unbalanced feet in his wake. It was beautiful to watch, as a fan, but it was also extremely effective.
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As opponents increasingly looked to press Arsenal high up the pitch, having a silky midfielder who would almost never lose the ball was invaluable. Cazorla was the escape valve. You could pass him the ball and know that he would be dispossessed. You knew that he could get out of any situation and then move the team up the pitch.
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His skill set was perfect for this pressure-releasing role. He was small and extremely agile, allowing him to change direction extremely sharply and quickly. He had terrific acceleration to explode away from defenders and his spatial-awareness was superb, meaning he knew where the pressing defender was before he even received the ball was, meaning he could spin into the subsequent space opened up without hesitating.
He was also tremendously both footed. He famously has taken set-pieces with both feet. In fact, it was not uncommon for people to not know whether he was right or left-footed, such was his comfort on either wing. He could control the ball with sumptuous skill on either foot, and then could dribble either way, before releasing an accurate pass no matter what foot he had to make contact with the ball with. All in all, Cazorla was perfect for the deep-lying, press-releasing playmaking position.
He suffered a horrifying ankle injury in October 2016. He was meant to only miss a matter of days, but with every passing operation and announcement, it was clear that his ankle was more troublesome than first believed. He would not play again for Arsenal, despite not leaving the club until almost two years later.
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Ever since, Arsenal have struggled to deal with high-pressing opponents. That is not a coincidence. Granit Xhaka is atrocious when receiving the ball under pressure, Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil is more comfortable higher up the pitch, while Lucas Torreira lacks the passing qualities to progress play from the base of the midfield. The only player to come close to Cazorla’s press-releasing impact is Dani Ceballos, who is only at the club on loan and does not have the same consistently high-level decision-making as his compatriot.
It may be almost four years since Cazorla has last kicked a ball for Arsenal, but the club still must invest in a release valve at the base of the midfield. In fact, bar centre-half, it is the greatest need that they must address in the summer transfer window. Finding a defensive midfielder with stature, defensive instincts and control on the ball is a crucial need.
Cazorla was a wonderful footballer, and not just because of his infectious smile and silky skills. He was central to Arsenal’s play, an invaluable part of the team. It is something that the club have not yet replaced.