Listed alongside two European Championships and an FA Cup in Santi Cazorla’s impressive list of honours are two Vitality Player of the Month awards from December and January this season. According to polls sponsored by Arsenal’s ‘official wellness partner’, Cazorla nursed the Gunners through December and January while Alexis Sanchez dipped, Aaron Ramsey stuttered and Mesut Ozil recovered. “He has taken on another dimension,” was Arsene Wenger’s verdict in January.
On November 22, Arsenal took on Manchester United at the Emirates with a central midfield trio of Mikel Arteta, Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere; they lost 2-1.
On March 9, Arsenal took on Manchester United at Old Trafford with a central midfield trio of Francis Coquelin, Santi Cazorla and Mesut Ozil; they won 2-1.
Cazorla looks like a man re-born in central midfield, using all the knowledge and experience gained over 12 years and 400-plus club games to blossom into the captivating footballer Wenger presumably still hopes Jack Wilshere will become: Intelligent, skilful, combative and capable of wriggling free from tight situations with nimble feet and a deceptive burst of pace. There is something wonderful about a footballer finding his finest form after the 30th birthday balloons have popped.
On Monday night at Old Trafford, Cazorla won six tackles (more than any other Arsenal player), recorded an 87.5% pass completion rate (higher than any other Arsenal player) and dribbled past three United players (only Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain could boast a more productive evening). That sounds remarkably like a complete central midfielder’s performance. And this was no one-off; his eye-catching turns against both Manchester clubs were merely the most high-profile of a series of stellar performances. While others floundered, Cazorla was one of the few Arsenal players who could walk away from the Monaco palaver with head held as high as it’s possible when you’re 5’6″.
“In the middle of the park he gets you out of situations when you are under pressure,” said Wenger after Arsenal had beaten City 2-0 in January. Despite the Gunners having just 35% possession, nobody on the pitch touched the ball more often than Cazorla. He has an incredibly safe pair of ambidextrous feet that are proving extremely useful when space is at a premium. The statistics prove what the eye can see: The Spaniard very rarely loses the ball with a poor touch.
This season began with Cazorla on the left wing against Crystal Palace and the suspicion that he could leave before the end of August as Wenger faced the conundrum of finding space for a plethora of attacking midfielders. By March he was captaining the Gunners against Everton from a withdrawn central midfield role. Unusually for a footballer, age has genuinely brought maturity, and at exactly the right time for Arsenal with Ramsey, Wilshere and Mikel Arteta all struggling for form and fitness.
At the end of November – when Sanchez had won three Vitality Player of the Month awards in succession – that dreadful phrase ‘one-man team’ was the C+V choice of Arsenal detractors. Just when Arsenal needed a second hero, up stepped an old one who had learned a whole new bag of tricks. We can’t pretend we’re not delighted.