"It's the best way to celebrate," beamed Santi Cazorla. The Spaniard had just helped Arsenal to a 4-1 victory over Newcastle United, celebrating his 30th birthday in style with an audacious brace at Emirates Stadium.
Scoring twice was the perfect present for the charismatic playmaker. Defeat at Stoke City a week before that win over Newcastle was in the main disappointing, but for Santi, there was a silver lining. His 68th-minute penalty at Britannia Stadium brought to an end a spell of 22 games without a goal at club level – his longest run of matches without netting since arriving in north London two-and-a-half years ago. As he told the Arsenal Magazine at the training ground recently, returning to the scoresheet brought palpable relief and confidence ahead of the busy festive period.
"I really wanted to score again," Santi smiles. "I’ve had a lot of chances this year but for one reason or another – either bad luck or because I’ve missed by inches – I’ve not scored many. I want to help the team by scoring more goals so hopefully the penalty against Stoke and the two against Newcastle can help me to do that."
Before that goal at Stoke, goalscoring had been the only component missing from Santi’s game this season. At the time of going to print, he had produced more crosses than any other Arsenal player in the Premier League this season, also creating the second-most amount of chances behind Alexis Sanchez. Per Mertesacker is the only player to have completed more passes than the 30 year old.
Deployed primarily on the flanks at the start of the campaign, Santi has shone in a more central position of late, engineering the 2-0 win over Borussia Dortmund and the 1-0 success over West Bromwich Albion with three assists across the two games.
No Arsenal player has made more appearances than Santi during 2014 and those two goals against Newcastle were a fine way to mark his 50th club match of what has been a congested calendar year. He is enjoying playing in the No 10 role and feels that his best years are still on the horizon.
"I feel good and don’t need to change anything," Santi explains. "Of course, as the years go by the body changes, but right now there’s no specific problem that’s going to force me to change the way I work on a day-to-day basis. I’m going to carry on as I am until something means I can’t do that anymore.
"I love playing centrally as it means I have a bit more freedom. I’m more able to help my team-mates"
"I love playing centrally as it means I have a bit more freedom. I’m more able to help my team-mates. At the end of the day, I’m happy to help my team-mates and manager wherever – I’m happy whether I play centrally or on the wing."
Now in his third season at Arsenal, Santi says he feels at home in London, and is ready for the demands of playing through another winter without a break.
"The club is great and has made me feel welcome from the very first day I arrived." Santi smiles again, before continuing. "The team is unbelievable so I’m very pleased to have had the chance to come here and win two trophies in the FA Cup and Community Shield. I hope I can win more silverware because that’s important for the club and particularly for the fans.
"It’s strange to play over Christmas of course, especially coming from Spain where you get a whole week off. You miss that a bit because you can be with your family and take your mind off football for a few days. It’s different here, though, and Boxing Day football is great for the fans. I’m used to it now."
First-team commitments will prevent a return to his homeland this winter, but Santi does enjoy returning to the north of Spain. He still has close ties with Llanera, the town in which he grew up, as well as former clubs Covadonga and Real Oviedo. In recent years Alexis Sanchez has returned home to Tocopilla in northern Chile to hand out presents to children at Christmas. Santi has a leisure centre named after him in Llanera and visits to his former clubs when time allows.
"They always give me a call to ask me to participate, to go and see the kids and give talks about my experiences as a player. It’s a privilege to be able to do that sort of thing"
"I’m always there for those clubs whenever they need anything," he says. "For example, every summer I go to their summer schools to see the kids that train there. They always give me a call to ask me to participate, to go and see the kids and give talks about my experiences as a player. It’s a privilege to be able to do that sort of thing.
"I was given a choice of having a road or a sports centre named after me. I chose the sports centre because it benefits the town and its young people. There's a swimming pool and a gym, along with other sports facilities, which are more useful than a street named after me! I was very proud that they thought of me – I’ll always do whatever I can to help Llanera because it’s a big part of me.
"I love going back there to see my family and friends – it allows me to get back to what I used to do when I was growing up. It’s a good way of taking my mind off football after a long season."
When Santi arrived at Arsenal, he was one of just two fluent Spanish-speakers in the first-team squad. That number has swelled to eight now, which the Arsenal No 19 believes has helped new signings Alexis and David Ospina to find their feet, as well as aiding the integration of Emiliano Martinez, Hector Bellerin and Joel Campbell into the first team.
"I enjoy having them around," says the naturally gregarious Santi . "It can be a bit dangerous because you practice your English less. Being able to speak to someone in your own language brings you closer and you end up chatting a lot. The Hispanic players are an important part of the squad, with myself, Alexis and David Ospina for example. They’re new but I’ve been here for three years – we’re a great group.
"I do feel a responsibility to help the guys adapt, but there are Spaniards that have been there for longer than I have, such as Hector Bellerin. I try to help the Spanish or South American players who arrive here because I know that the first year can be tough."
If adjusting to London life was difficult, Santi never showed it on the pitch. A firm fans' favourite from the moment he sparkled on his debut against Sunderland in August 2012, Santi heightened his reputation considerably when scoring his most important Arsenal goal to date during last season's dramatic FA Cup final. That match is one which Santi recalls with a wide grin, and he is looking forward to a rerun when Hull City visit Emirates Stadium in the third round of the competition on January 4.
"Playing Hull in the FA Cup will bring back the memories of that day,” he predicts. “It was a special moment for us, but the past doesn’t matter in football – the game’s played in the present so it will be a totally different game I’m sure.
"It was special for me seeing as it was my first final with Arsenal. I knew it was important to win a trophy after so long. I spoke with members of the coaching staff and they told me we had to win at all costs to put an end to the barren spell. It was an exciting time but there was also pressure because of the fact that we’d gone so long without a trophy.
"We didn’t start well at all. Everybody had us down as the big favourites before the match, but we got off to a bad start and conceded two goals from corners in the first 10 minutes. That made the match very difficult but luckily the team was able to react and I think that in the end we deserved the win.
"Of course I can still remember the free- kick. Before the match, the boss had told us that their goalkeeper always took a step towards the wall when facing free-kicks, so we’d have a good chance of scoring on the other side. So when I got the free-kick, I saw that side was open and figured I’d trust in the boss! Luckily, their goalkeeper did take a step to the side, so when he reacted he didn’t have time to save it.
"The goal was one of my most important, as was the penalty I scored for Spain against Italy in the European Championships, because they were both in big games. It’s always important to do well in finals, and if you can score as well, that’s even better.
"I thought that if we could get one back before half-time we’d have a great chance of drawing level and then winning the match. I think the goal gave the team a lot of confidence – we improved greatly and had lots of chances for the rest of the match.
"The day after the game, we had the parade. I couldn’t believe how many people there were lining the streets. It was also a beautiful day in London so that was a big plus. Being able to see the fans celebrate a trophy after so long was amazing and we hope to have a repeat experience as soon as possible!”
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