Santi Cazorla, Tiny Dancer

Santi Cazorla hasn't played in more than a year, and it's anyone's guess when he'll play again. But the space in the game left by his absence makes his return seem all the more necessary.
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Santi Cazorla hasn’t played soccer in more than a year. A chronic Achilles condition that had required an astonishing eight separate surgeries has sidelined the diminutive Spaniard since he limped off against Lugogorets in a Champions League game in October 2016. Earlier this week, it was announced that he'd recently undergone his ninth. Even if the most optimistic estimates prove correct, he might not be back until early in 2018. Some, even Cazorla himself, are questioning whether he will ever kick a ball professionally again.

This is all to say why, after watching Arsenal limply and ever so predictably lose away to Stoke in the second week of this Premier League season, I went down to the local sports outfitter and shelled out $120 on a pristine new Arsenal jersey with “S. Cazorla - 19” on the back. At the time this seemed less an act of vicarious consumption than an expression one of a fan’s yearning. I suppose it’s both.

It has become a soccer cliché that a player’s reputation grows exponentially when he is not playing. No one is rated more highly than an injured or suspended player whose team is suffering in his or her absence. As if the missing ingredient to success had always been the wounded player’s magic combination of attributes, an itchy phantom limb on the collective body of the team.

And there really is something to that with Arsenal and Cazorla. His ability to dictate a match from a deeper midfield position and to add an extra layer of guile to the Gunner’s passing to compliment Mesut Ozil listless brilliance is unique to the squad. Moreover, where Arsenal’s other midfielders have a tendency to be sloppy in attack and unfocused in defense—witness, or don’t, that 4-0 mauling at Liverpool—Santi is tidy and alert. And while he is in no sense strong in the tackle, he is a snappy defender whose tactical smarts stabilize Arsenal with and without the ball. In purely footballing terms, Arsenal and its fans miss him dearly.

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Considering his obvious lack of physical prowess, Cazorla’s transformation from a tricksy number 10 to premier deep-lying midfield operator is remarkable if not wholly improbable. While many of the very best attacking soccer players tend to be both short and blessed with a low center of gravity—the Holy Trinity of Pele, Diego Maradona, and Lionel Messi are all 5’8’’ or under—strength and size continue to be valued assets for midfielders and defenders at the highest levels of the game.

Cazorla is very small at 5’5’’, but more to the point he actually seems small. He has narrow shoulders, short, pattering strides, and the semblance of a potbelly. He’s quick over ten yards but by no means fast or surprisingly powerful in the way Messi, Maradona, and Pele is or was. In many ways he is the embodiment the small, “genetically” second-rate player Scotland National Team coach Gordon Strachan recently argued populates Scottish soccer to its detriment. Strachan was roundly and rightly mocked for the artlessness of his comments, but more than a few commentators nodded in agreement: smaller, less athletic players have to work exponentially harder than larger, more athletic ones to compete, and over the course of 90 minutes that takes a massive physical toll.

Also, at the risk of pointing out the obvious, a soccer field is large. The best players are said to make use of every inch of it by “opening it up” with a well-timed switch of play, or by “stretching” it by passing long or making ample use of the wings. And then there are those midfield behemoths like Yaya Toure or Paul Pogba, who are said to “eat up the grass” as they sprint upfield on attacking runs leaving defenders in their wake, their long, elegant strides advancing the ball in less time and more efficiently than had they decided to pass their way forward.

Cazorla’s art is the opposite of that. He does what he does by reducing or compressing space. Indeed, there is a jewelry box quality to Santi’s repertoire of skill wherein every touch he takes—the feints, spins, and swivels beyond larger opponents—can be done within the confines of a cramped parlor room. He has an uncanny ability to keep possession in tight areas, ease pressure from opposition, and start counter attacks. He did this with notable aplomb against Manchester City in January 2015. Other than Andres Iniesta, no player more instinctively or more adroitly pulls off the croqueta—the skill move par excellence to both evade tackles and advance the ball—than Cazorla.

This is no doubt in large part down to his enviable two-footedness. Cazorla is arguably the most ambipedaled player in the game today. As such, he inhabits a match in 360 degrees. Like the queen in chess, he always seems to have omni-directional options. But here his diminutive size also proves to be a distinct advantage. His trademark of elusiveness is born both of technique and an inherently small physical radius and quickness of foot. By placing him at the base of midfield Arsenal were able to take advantage of his capacity to break the opponent’s press by quite literally wriggling out of it. In this way, Cazrola is himself a riposte to Strachan’s comments. Or maybe he’s a case of “reverse Darwinism,” wherein the seeming least evolved is in many ways the best equipped to survive in its environment. Survival of the shortest, call it.

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Still, Cazorla’s capacity to inspire such wistful esteem in his absence goes beyond sport. Like his compatriot Juan Mata, Cazorla exists as a living rejoinder to the jocular world of English soccer and its bloated sense of self-importance. By all accounts a delightful and profoundly decent person, again with Mata and the recently retired Spanish striker Michu, Cazorla helped save Real Oviedo, his first professional club, from financial extinction by buying massive shares in the club and publicizing Oviedo’s plight abroad. Indeed, when the curtain eventually closes on Cazorla's career, he will likely be remembered first and foremost as a player's player—a footballer who by force of his personal charm and uncommon skill inspired glowing admiration among his peers and coaches.

Beyond his unassailable professionalism, I want to believe that admiration for Santi is also born out of something elemental to the way he approaches the game. That is, as an opportunity to express happiness in something like the manner a child does in the park. Always laughing, always smiling, sometimes dancing. It’s hard not to hope that we’ll get to see a bit more of him before he shuffles off like some Charlie Chaplin in muddy boots. The game will be a tiny bit less joyful than when he entered it.


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