The most precious tribute you can pay Santi Cazorla is that he would have been a star on Arsene Wenger’s greatest Arsenal teams. You could see him dictating play alongside Patrick Vieira in the centre of midfield or triangulating with Ashley Cole and Thierry Henry down the left wing with another display of precocious close control and high-speed passing to leave opponents dazed and dizzy.
Instead, his fate was to elevate Wenger’s most average Arsenal teams. And it was a role he played superbly. No leap of the imagination is required to ponder how bad Arsenal would have been had they not signed him from Malaga for £15m back in 2012: in the two seasons since he suffered the debilitating injury which eventually resulted in his departure from the club this week, Arsenal failed to finish inside the top four.
There are a multitude of factors that came into play, but the absence of Cazorla since October 2016 is clearly one of the most significant in Arsenal’s recent decline. Prior to his injury, Arsenal had won 12 of 14 games; without him they slumped to fifth in the table in 2016-17 and then sixth this time around. Arsenal were two points off the top spot when another campaign was effectively ended by his injury in November 2015; without him, Arsenal allowed Leicester to win the league. The cups also were evidence of his influence: it was Cazorla’s amazing free-kick which started the comeback against Hull City in the 2014 FA Cup final, and he was man of the match when Aston Villa were routed 12 months later.
It was even Cazorla who gave Arsenal a glimpse of the team they could have been with his remarkable interpretation of the deep-lying playmaker role in a 2-0 win over Manchester City in January 2015. He scored and claimed an assist as Arsenal produced a rare and highly intelligent display of counterattacking football. Tackling, intercepting, passing, dribbling, assisting, scoring: it was one of the most complete performances by any Arsenal player in the Wenger era.
If Arsenal were unable to replicate the model of the City performance, it was not due to any failings on Cazorla’s part. He was always a player with a unique ability to bring out the best in his teammates, someone who ensured that even players with the disparate skill sets of Mesut Ozil and Francis Coquelin were elevated by his mere presence on the pitch. He could encourage the best qualities from gossamer-light playmakers and hard-hitting holders alike. Even if it was his own qualities that were the most magical of all.
A defining feature of Wenger’s best Arsenal teams was their ability to calmly hold onto possession and find the right solution even under the most extreme pressure. Two-footed and twinkle-toed, no player in the second half of Wenger’s reign kept that thread alive quite like Cazorla, whose passing skills and ability to slalom through a crowd of players allowed him to escape the tightest of spots. His dribbling prowess was a legacy of his origins as an attacking playmaker, and allied with the precise passing which so often found Ozil in space it made him a multifaceted threat from deep. If it sometimes feels like Granit Xhaka is half the player Cazorla was — in a way he literally is.
The news of Unai Emery’s imminent appointment meant Cazorla’s departure after six years at Arsenal on Monday night was marginalised. It hardly helped that his exit was the culmination of a process which had been long expected, and long feared. As the operations kept coming — eight in total — and gruesome photos emerged which depicted a portion of flesh removed from Cazorla’s arm and transplanted, tattoo and all, onto his heel, the ominous outcome was clear.
But even through a trauma that almost caused his foot to be amputated, publicly at least his smile never waned. It’s there in the photos of his last training session with the club; there in the images of his surprise run-out at Emirates Stadium prior to the Europa League semifinal against Atletico Madrid, which gave so many fans false hope that a new deal was coming; there in the images of a suited Cazorla joining in the celebrations after Arsenal won the Community Shield against Chelsea back in August; there, front and centre in almost everything good that has happened to Arsenal in the past six years. A smile matched by the millions he caused to be etched across faces across the world. And now it won’t be seen again.
Arsenal are growing accustomed to dramatic wastes of midfield talent. Tomas Rosicky and Abou Diaby never recovered from their injury problems, and Jack Wilshere is not the player he could have been. But arguably none hurt quite as much as Cazorla. Even with two years of his career ripped from him, he is undeniably one of the most talented players to pull on an Arsenal shirt. And more than that, one of the most likeable. That infectious smile and his genius on the ball made him a rarity in the modern era: a player who commanded unanimous affection.
It’s hard to imagine he will ever be adequately replaced.
Tom is one of ESPN FC’s Arsenal bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @tomEurosport