When looking back over the last decade of Spanish midfielders, finding the best of the bunch is not easy. It could be either of the two Catalan cogs in the well-oiled tiki-taka machine of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, Xavi Hernandez or Andres Iniesta, for their selfless artistry and mastery of the pass and move philosophy. It could even be the fiery Basque, Xavi Alonso, for his unique (for modern Spanish footballers) skill set at the base of the midfield, or perhaps even Cesc Fabregas for his success as a technician in the rough and tumble Premier League. However, once time has given perspective to the football world, I believe it will be the little magician, Santi Cazorla, who is remembered as the best of the bunch. However, after his vicious injury that nearly left him without a foot, the question must be asked, should he ever play again?
Santiago Cazorla can do it all on the football pitch. He is a real two-footed player, capable of taking everything from his first touch to a 45-yard pass with either foot, and a phenomenal free kick taker. He is equally as comfortable playing short passing combinations with his teammates as he is roping a pass over the top of the defence, hitting his attacker in stride. With the ball at his feet, few in Europe are as tricky as the diminutive Spaniard. He can shake the best man markers in the game with his dribbling and his change of pace ability is unparalleled. He is a one player high press destroyer in the centre of the pitch, and will even leave the odd foot in for a tackle. In short, there is little on the pitch Cazorla cannot do, and even less he will do without an infectious smile on his face.
Cazorla’s absence from competitive action since October 2016 has also highlighted just how essential he is to his club, Arsenal. Last year’s marquee midfield signing, Granit Xhaka, has never looked as good again as he did in those first months of the season with the Spaniard by his side. The club’s biggest rivals in the Premier League often incorporate a high block into their defensive tactics, and without Cazorla, the team has noticeably struggled in matches where the pressure is put on the midfield, finding themselves losing battles in the area of the pitch Arsene Wenger has never been in short supply since becoming Arsenal manager.
The injury itself, against Ludogrets late in a match the Gunners had already wrapped up, was benign, and thought to be be minor by Wenger at the time. However, days quickly stretched into weeks and soon, months. Wenger kept pushing back the time table for his return, and would update the media periodically. Cazorla needed multiple surgeries to fix an Achilles problem, which lead to a whole host of complications. He lost 8 centimetres from his tendon, contracted gangrene in his heel and needed several attempts, the final of which included a skin graft from his arm, just to close his ankle up. At one point, a doctor even told him that he would be lucky to walk his daughter around again. For many fans, it was hard to fathom exactly what he was going through until THAT picture hit the headlines (you know the one). The sight of the mangled flesh around a weak, atrophied ankle and the severe swath of fresh skin grafted over the opening, bearing a portion of a tattoo that contained his daughter’s name, finally brought home to many what he has been dealing with.
The very real question that must be asked now is whether or not he should even attempt to play again. At 80% of himself, he would still be a valuable contributor to Arsenal’s campaign this season. The reports from Wenger since he resumed training on that leg have been that he could be back after Christmas. Though he will be a long way away from the man at the height of his powers just a couple short years ago, his mere presence will be a lift to his teammates. Hearing them speak of his abilities and seeing them respond to his mischievous behaviour, it becomes even more obvious how much he is missed.
I am no doctor, but it seems to me the wisdom behind his return should be rooted in one factor alone: how likely is he to re-injure the same Achilles? Does losing some of its length increase the likelihood of a rupture? If he reopens the ankle wound again, will they even be able to close it again? If anything happens to it, will that doctor’s worst fears about losing the foot come to pass? Is another couple years of football really worth the destruction of his life after it? One thing is for certain; Santi Cazorla is a magnetic personality. He doesn’t need football anymore to sustain his quality of life. Should he hang his boots up, the pitch will lose a touch of magic so unique, we may never see it again, but it would not be the end of the world. He has a family at home that love playing with their father. Despite what a disconcerting portion of Arsenal supporters believe these days, winning at all cost is no way to win. Every fan would be united in their excitement if he returned to the pitch again this season, and if there is no elevated risk of injury, he should. However, if there is any chance that an aggravation of the problem could result in serious complications, he must walk away. Even if you are the greatest in a golden generation of Spanish midfielders, some things are still much more important.