Wizardry cut short: Santi Cazorla's heart-wrenching end to his Arsenal career
Cazorla's lengthy absence left a huge void and football was poorer for it
Look for recent pictures of Santi Cazorla and you will rarely find one where he isn't smiling. And if he isn't smiling it's probably because he's laughing out loud, spreading cheer among Arsenal his teammates and coaches.
It is almost cruel that a player that absolutely everybody loved - fans and rivals alike - has not played a single minute of football since October 2016. Arsenal have missed him. Sorely.
Without his assuring presence in midfield, they have now missed out on Champions League football in successive seasons. It was exactly the same case at Villarreal when he was sold.
The diminutive Spaniard was the heart and soul of Wenger's team. He epitomised Wengerball. The smallest man on the pitch was always the hardest player to nick the ball from.
There were times when he would literally circumnavigate defenders, much to the roaring approval of fans at the stadium. His skills on the ball dove-tailed well with Wenger's philosophy of retaining possession and always keeping the ball moving.
"You couldn’t get the ball off him in a telephone box. Cazorla is the one I would have no qualms about paying to watch every week." - Jamie Redknapp
It takes more than just skill to stand out on the pitch when you are only 5 ft 6 in tall. Nobody unlocked defences like he did with his through balls and nobody kept the ball in possession with such certain security like he did.
The Two-Footed King
One of Cazorla's greatest qualities was his ability to use both feet. Nobody knows whether he is right-footed or left-footed. He once admitted that he preferred his right foot but an injury forced him to practice with his left.
"I was a little bit hurt in my right ankle once, and that is when I started to use my left foot a lot more," he said in an interview with Arsenal.
"After training sessions, I would stay an extra half-an-hour and kick the ball against the wall with my weaker foot over and over again to make sure it becomes stronger and better."
It has come in handy many a time. Especially on corner kicks. One particular incident comes to mind where his two-footed ability proved to be useful.
In a game against Watford, Laurent Koscielny can be seen asking Cazorla to take a corner with his left foot rather than the right so the ball could be swung in instead of out. The midfielder calmly walks across and swings it in with his left foot with the linesman also looking on in wonder.
The Unknown Variable that Balanced the Equation
How Arsenal managed to prise him away from La Liga when Real Madrid failed twice remains a mystery. Taking advantage of Malaga's financial troubles, the Gunners only had to pay £15m to secure his signature.
When Wenger was asked to comment on speculation surrounding Cazorla's arrival, all he said was: "I don’t know this guy," with a knowing grin that we have grown so accustomed to when a great player is close to signing for the north London club.
Manuel Pellegrini, Malaga's coach at the time, said Cazorla's sale to Arsenal was "an unthinkable gift". The fact that he was still a relatively unknown quantity at that age is another mystery.
He and Juan Mata were the only players not from Real Madrid or Barcelona to make an Opta La Liga XI based purely on stats.
"He is a player who plays and makes others play, supremely gifted. An artist!" - former Malaga sporting director Antonio Fernandez
His impact at Arsenal was immediate and it forced many fans into questioning how lethal the team could have been had Robin van Persie stayed and profited with Cazorla behind him. His first season in the punishing English top flight saw him finish with 12 goals and 11 assists in the league.
Over the years, his role and position have evolved - attacking midfielder, a wide midfielder, playing on the wing, a deep-lying playmaker... But the underlying philosophy was still the same. Keep Arsenal ticking on the pitch.
He was crucial on set-pieces too. His free-kick saw Arsenal mount a comeback in the FA Cup final to win their first trophy in nine years. Corner duties were always his. And when required, he would even step up to take penalties.
Had Barcelona not developed some of the greatest midfielders of this generation, Cazorla may well have ended up wearing a Blaugrana shirt. Very few players are blessed with the technique and the intelligence to use space and time to their advantage.
It is something that was taught by La Masia coaches at the time and club legend Xavi acknowledges Cazorla as one of few non-Barcelona midfielders to have mastered the art of dominating 'space-time'.
"I asked him: 'How did you learn this?' How didn't Barca sign him? He already knows the style." - Xavi on Cazorla
In truth, Cazorla had perfected his skills over the years at Aviles, Oviedo, and Recreativo Huelva. Joan Capdevila once said: "He does things you've never seen. You want to know how good Santi is? Type 'Cazorla Seitaridis' into YouTube. I played with him for five years and I still don't know if he is right footed or left footed. It's insane!"
Capdevila is not alone.
18 months of pain
Back when Cazorla was giving defenders the run-around and finding the back of the net, the celebration for each goal was always the same. Roll up the sleeves and kiss the names of his children - Enzo and India - tattooed on his forearms.
He can never do that again. If he returns to the pitch at all.
Surgery on his ankle saw complications arise where gangrene had set in and it had eaten away at his Achilles tendon. 8 cm of his tendon was missing due to an aggressive bacteria.
After eight surgeries in a year, he needed a skin graft for his foot and the skin was taken from his forearm. His daughter's name now appears half on his forearm and half on the back of his ankle.
"If you get to walk again with your son in the garden, be satisfied, they told me." - Cazorla in an interview with Marca
On Arsenal's part, they extended his contract until June 2018 to put his mind at ease. A January return was tabled but the first time Cazorla returned to the Emirates pitch for a runaround with his fitness coach was late April - too late to even return to the reserve team, let alone the first team.
The last few training sessions may possibly be the last time we see Cazorla in an Arsenal shirt. The 33-year-old is all set to return to Spain - back to his former club.
Villarreal club ambassador Marcos Senna claimed Cazorla would return to the Spanish club for pre-season. "It is all-but-official that, although it has not all been completely confirmed by the club, Santi Cazorla will spend pre-season next season with Villarreal."
Of course, nobody would blame Arsenal for being reluctant to offer the Spaniard another contract. Villarreal haven't confirmed they will offer him a contract either. As things stand, he will only be trying to regain match fitness with The Yellow Submarine.
Also read: Santi Cazorla set for La Liga move
It has been an emotional roller-coaster for Arsenal fans in the past two seasons. But it pales in comparison to what Cazorla has had to go through. He missed the 2010 World Cup because of a hernia, he played just 82 minutes in 2014 and he is not even in contention this time around.
In Spain's greatest generation ever, Cazorla was a unique talent; a well-liked character whose maturity and humility shone through those pearly white teeth that greeted every player he met.
Very few loved football as much as he did. He was that kid who always had a football at his feet who grew up to live every fan's dream. He was the fútbolista futbolero - a football fan first and then a footballer.
We will miss watching him in his prime. And we will all be poorer for it.