Feature

Santi Cazorla

This story first appeared in the October 2016 edition of the Arsenal Magazine.

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Santi Cazorla adorns the front of the October magazine

Santi Cazorla adorns the front of the October magazine

 
As Santi Cazorla looks around the Arsenal dressing room these days, he admits, it’s from a very different perspective. That’s because so many of the players are looking at him from a different perspective too. At 31, and in a squad with a lot of young talent, he’s suddenly become one of the senior figures. The wizard on the ball is now a wizened mentor.
 

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“I’m a bit more of a veteran, it’s true!” he exclaims. “With the dressing room we have, and just with the age, you see you can be – not necessarily a reference – but someone who can show the young players coming up, like Alex Iwobi, [Chuba] Akpom, Jeff [ReineAdelaide]. Me, when I was young, I always looked to the veterans of the team to say how it was, so I try to be an example and give them advice.”

If Cazorla’s seniority means he is looked upon in a different way by muchof the squad, there is one thing about his appearance that never changes: thathappiness, that exuberance. He’s smiling as he walks through the London Colneytraining ground, and you can even see it when he enthuses about being calleda veteran. It’s also why it’s difficult to imagine him ever administering a veteran’s telling-off, and getting properly angry with young players.

“Yes! I struggle to! I struggle to say things in an aggressive way. I prefer to discuss things from a calmer point of view, always trying to give a message. I am more paternal in that way rather than aggressive.”

That smile was particularly broad when the supporters loudly cheered Cazorla'sname to welcome him back from last season’s long-term knee injury, something that also provided scope for reflection about it all.

“It makes you realise,” Cazorla says. “The support of the fans is the most important for a player. All I can do is say thanks to all the fans, ever since my first day at Arsenal.It’s true it gives you strength when you are injured and away from play. I hope I can give back this affection by playing to the maximum at this club and giving everythingfor Arsenal.”

Santi in training

Santi in training

That is the thing about the returned and revitalised Cazorla. There was obviously noquestion about his dedication before, but even that commitment is now amplified.It is a feeling deepened by the fact that last November’s injury at Norwich City was actually his first extended absence since 2009/10 at Villarreal, a period on the sidelines that forced him to miss Spain’s victorious World Cup in South Africa. That is an impressive spell of fitness, but the way it ended at Carrow Road shortly before his 31st birthday has caused further contemplation.

“When I was young and spoke to the veterans of clubs I was at, they told me that once you get past the 30 barrier, it takes longer to recover even after one hard day of training, or after an injury. I was 23 or 24 and said, ‘No, that won’t happen to me. I’m fine now. I’m never tired.’ But once you get to 30 and you unluckily have injuries, it takes longer to recuperate and you have more problems. You have to look after yourbody, too, to be at 100% every game.” His body is not the only thing that has changed since first coming to Arsenal from Malaga in 2012. So has the Premier League.

“It’s going through a revolution in some senses. For example, the first year I arrived at Arsenal, everyone said to me, ‘When we go to play Stoke City away, you’ll see what the Premier League is,’ and you go to play Stoke City now and they have spectacularplayers, who want to play the ball. That also shows the Premier League – and football in general – is looking for a more controlled style, a style of creativity, and that is goodfor everyone.”

 

Cazorla has the perfect vantage point, given he has spent his four years in the Premier League right in the centre of the pitch, an area that has arguably gone through the most change. It has evolved from a position mostly populated by the destroyers to one filled with passing creators. Cazorla was one of those who led the way in England, albeit having been moved back there from further up the pitch by Arsène Wenger.

“It’s a position I like. It’s true I’m a bit further from the area, and can’t give the same number of passes to goal or score goals myself but I feel comfortable becauseI get a lot of touches of the ball.”

In the 0-0 draw at Leicester City, though, Cazorla was moved back – or forward, ifyou like – to one of his old roles. He played number 10, but actually found it took a bitof time to get back up to speed.

“It was a little strange because, when you play a different position, you have to get used to the little details again… playing between the lines, playing in between a defence and midfielders, taking up a position where you can do damage to the opposition defence. That’s what you have to get used to, to play a bit behind theforward, and also give assists to the players from midfield going forward. It is different.”

Cazorla has returned to his usual position, something that reflects his seniority in the team, especially since it feels a long time since Arsenal had such competition in the middle. The signing of Granit Xhaka has afforded Wenger a variety of different tactical options and midfield configurations.

“There are two things,” Cazorla explains. “You can have a more defensive player onone side and another more creative one on the other. At Barcelona, Xavi Hernandez was the creator but he had a player like Sergio Busquets alongside him, or Yaya Toure, players who were more defensive than him and gave him that freedom we creative players need. I’m very comfortable because, when I play with Francis Coquelin, with Mohamed Elneny, with Xhaka, they help me a lot in that position.

“I’ve been lucky the boss has always had confidence in me. Now, I’ve played manygames with Arsenal, it’s clear every year is more difficult. We have many players of a very high level and I think it’s a very good thing for the manager.”

It is still a very familiar situation for Cazorla, though, since it is has been much the same with Spain during his international career – a lot of midfield competition.

“Yes, my time has coincided with a period of many spectacular players in my position, but it’s also helped to make me better, to learn a lot from them. Just like with Arsenal, there are so many great players.”

Santi celebrates his late winner against Southampton

Santi celebrates his late winner against Southampton

In the summer, Cazorla had to watch those Spanish players rather than play with them. He missed a tournament for the first time since 2010, and admits he struggled to adjust.

“It was very hard… ultimately, you never know when the last time you’ll wear the shirt of your country will be so it was difficult, too, to watch the matches on TV. You always have a bit of nostalgia for being there with your team-mates but, well, that’s football.

“You try to be a fan but I’m not sure… at times it’s difficult. Sometimes you just feel your own absence, like you’re not there forming part of it, even though it’s something you’ve lived, to be part of that group of players that form an international squad. It’s difficult but it’s also true you enjoy it a little from a different perspective.” But how does a professional like Cazorla watch it? Away from the stadium and the squad camp, does he find he can completely switch off and watch it as a supporter, or is someone as analytical regarding the game as Cazorla always switched on; always looking at it from a technical perspective?

“Both. You have moments. You have moments where the match makes you be more of a supporter without analysing the football, and other moments when maybe the match is calmer and you start to think about what the team needs. There’s timefor everything in one match.”

Spain’s time in the tournament, though, was all too brief. They were stunned byCroatia, losing their last group game in the last few minutes 2-1, and that meanta second-round game against a rampant Italy. Did it hurt to eventually lose thetrophy to neighbours Portugal?

“No. Ultimately, what we wanted was to win it ourselves. If Spain don’t win,it doesn’t really matter. Portugal deserve congratulations for winning it and theperformance they put in but, once Spain got knocked out, I didn’t have manypreferences. I had team-mates and friends there, like Mesut Ozil with Germany, theFrench players with France. I would have liked them to win for that but, like I say,my focus was on Spain and the rest doesn’t affect me too much.”

But how will the early elimination affect Spanish football? It has deepened thedebate around the team. The manager has changed, with the legendary Vicente DelBosque being replaced by Julen Lopetegui, but will it bring a change of style?

“I think it will be difficult to change style because, in the end, it’s not about the manager. It’s about the type of players we have in Spain. We have many players of the style we’ve played for the last few years. I keep seeing players with those abilities. It’s true they might change some things, and a manager has his own way of seeing football, but Spain will still more or less be what we’ve seen up to now.

“A new generation has been talked of a lot. We have a new manager. We’re going to see what idea he has, if he will make a lot of changes or not. The positive is that Spain has a good future ahead because the young players coming through are good. In the future, Spain will still have a good team, competing for the big trophies.”

One Arsenal teammate is likely to be a key part of that team: Hector Bellerin. The 21-year-old is also one of those who went to Cazorla for advice, especially on the national squad.

“We talk a lot with him, me or Nacho [Monreal], of our experience with the squad, what it’s like, and we try to advise him. He’s very mature for his age, but we will try to help him so he keeps developing because he will be a player who is very important for Arsenal.

“I texted him when the official Euro 2016 list came out, and he found out he was inthe final 23. I told him to enjoy it because I was lucky enough to play in two EuropeanChampionships and know how lucky I am. That’s what I wanted to transmit to him. To enjoy it because, although you’ll hopefully go to many more, you never know what will happen in football. So enjoy the moment, seize the opportunity that football brings you.”

Santi in action against PSG in this season's Champions League

Santi in action against PSG in this season's Champions League

It’s difficult to not imagine the coach in Cazorla as he says all this. He sounds like he would be good at it, at setting the right tone for younger players. Is it something he’s thought about? Has he started to prepare for the ‘next step’ as he had seen compatriot Mikel Arteta do in the last few season?“Well, I’ve always said I’d like to stay connected to football when I finish playing.

"I don’t know exactly what activity but it’s clear football is my life, it’s what I’ve done since I was seven years old, and we’ll see what the future can do.

“I want to play many years yet at a high level.”

He has already got involved in some related projects outside the game, though.As someone who watched every minute of the Olympics that he could, Cazorla isconcerned with general health and fitness – especially for young kids – and has lent his name to a leisure centre in his home town of Llanera.

“Yes, I like to see the young people play sport above all, not even just playing football. I grew up playing on the street and what I want for my son is that he plays sport, that he enjoys himself and for my name to be put on a leisure centre where people can go to the gym, swim, play tennis, I think it’s very gratifying for me and anything that helps the health of young people is good.

“Children do still play ball a lot but I think technology has advanced a lot and, in that sense, the children enjoy a different childhood than I had, where you spent hours in the street because you had nothing else to play with.

“It has changed, completely, everything. Now it’s all technology, iPads, mobiles,the computer. In my day, it was only ball, ball, ball.

“I learned a lot in the street. Now, it’s difficult to say it to the kids, with so muchtechnology, what your childhood was like. In the end, every childhood is different and what’s important is to enjoy it in the best way possible and, above all, that they do sport. It’s so important.”

Cazorla shows the importance of enjoying it almost every day. There's always thatsmile, no matter what changes in the game.

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