Santi Cazorla and Villarreal: chapter three of a love story that continues to defy and entertain

Santi Cazorla and Villarreal: chapter three of a love story that continues to defy and entertain

Time was running out, and Villarreal’s efforts had been in vain. But in the blink of an eye, an outpouring of emotion infused the atmosphere: El Madrigal erupted. Santi Cazorla scored his second of the game to restore parity, guiding his team to a 2-2 draw against reigning European champions Real Madrid.

Cazorla’s 82nd-minute goal was emblematic of a footballing love story that had come full circle. Six months into his third spell at the club, he had found the back of the net in LaLiga for the first time that season. It was not the type of finish that is synonymous with this Villarreal team, and especially not the diminutive playmaker: at five foot four inches, he ghosted in behind Sergio Ramos and ahead of Marcelo to nod the ball past Thibaut Courtois. 

The smallest player on the pitch quietly moved forward, sensing an opportunity to make the unlikely occur; patiently awaiting a chance to creep up on the stalwarts of Spanish football and remind them of his timeless quality. His first strike came via an expertly taken first-time shot, finessed into the bottom corner in the opening exchanges, and the spoils were shared in a 2-2 draw. Real Madrid were nothing to write home about, and Villarreal were arguably the better team. But in the midst of an entertaining, error-strewn encounter prevailed a shining light – a success story marked by a devastating individual performance. 

Cazorla had netted twice last season prior to his brace against Los Blancos. He opened his account for the campaign with a goal in the 3-3 draw away at Spartak Moscow in the Europa League and struck as Villarreal defeated Almería 3-0 in a comfortable Copa del Rey outing. 

Goalscoring has never truly been Cazorla’s forte; his selfless, stylish influence between the lines has perennially been his deadliest weapon. But the two efforts against Real were significant and decisive, earning his side a hard-fought point in a painstaking match for both teams. When the whistle blew after four minutes of additional time, all eyes were drawn towards the playmaker.

If Cazorla had been told that he would be able to merely remain standing after 94 minutes of action – at any kind of footballing level – a year before, he’d have laughed. Such is the nature of his personality, though, he has always sought to adopt a glass-half-full mentality. Humour, even in his darkest days, is a trait which aided him in overcoming challenges even experts could not have foreseen. 

Cazorla’s world came crashing down on 19 October 2006, but the consequence of the benevolence that the midfielder carries himself with meant few would have noticed his silent suffering. He, too, was unaware of the extent to which his prospects of kicking a ball again had been harmed. 

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Arsenal trounced Ludogorets 6-0 in a convincing Champions League group stage display at the Emirates Stadium. It was a professional job from Arsène Wenger’s men: Mesut Özil netted a hat-trick and was the playmaker whose name courted the headlines. The triumph over the Bulgarian outfit, however, would prove to be the last time Cazorla kicked a ball for the Gunners, as horrific injuries plagued his remaining years in north London. What appeared to be a minor knock was, in fact, a catalyst for an unimaginably difficult period, and a test of the character that had hitherto blessed teammates and supporters alike with infectious energy on and off the pitch. 

Gruelling operations – 11 of them – seemed likely to have left Cazorla broken, depleted of the nimble-footed innovation that his magic boots had once demonstrated and bereft of the prospect of playing top-level football again. It was a demoralising absence and one that very nearly brought one of the Premier League’s most ingenious midfielders’ career to a premature conclusion. But returning to football wasn’t the sole focus, and a concern that far exceeded the importance of the game itself was presented to Cazorla and his peers. 

Instead of targeting when he would resume training, lace his boots again or even embark on a gentle jog on the treadmill, Cazorla was told in no uncertain terms that he would be fortunate to stroll around the garden alongside his children again. In the aftermath of an infection spreading in his right leg, significant surgeries were carried out: the Spaniard has a metal plate in his foot, a part of his left forearm on his right ankle – a chunk of his thigh replacing the void – along with part of a rolled-up hamstring acting as a makeshift Achilles tendon. He recalled to Sid Lowe for The Guardian that physios had seldom seen a case of such severity, and amputation appeared eerily closer to a genuine possibility than the distant chance of a worst-case scenario. 

But football, for all its intricacies – the numbers, the technology, the methods – is still a chasm of romanticism. Miracles don’t often occur in the game, but in Cazorla’s case, it is hard to reason otherwise. And while his return to Villarreal presented a paradigm of sentimentality, time has proven it to be an inspired choice, with the veteran orchestrating passages of play and gliding up and down El Madrigal’s turf as though he never left. 

The reality, however, is far different. Cazorla may only have departed Spanish soil once in his footballing career – he joined Arsenal from Málaga in 2011 – but this is his third spell at Villarreal. While his boyhood team may be Real Oviedo, the club at which he honed his skills as a youngster, he is evidently emotionally attached to El Submarino Amarillo. 

It took just €600,000 to prise away the promising midfielder from Villarreal’s clutches in 2006. Having spent three years sporadically drifting in and out of the senior squad, he was offloaded to Recreativo, who made ambitious moves as they attempted to stave off the immediate threat of relegation after securing promotion. 

Villarreal’s decision to offload Cazorla, led by Manuel Pellegrini, who would sign the player for Málaga, was somewhat peculiar given the early promise he had shown, but it was not without foresight. The inclusion of a buyback clause, priced at €1.2m, was quickly activated by Villarreal after only one season, in which Recreativo finished just eight points behind them, as Cazorla’s playmaking sills inspired an eye-catching eighth-place finish.

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He seamlessly slotted into Villarreal’s setup and, this time around, there was no hint of his influence being underestimated. Cazorla netted five goals and contributed with nine assists in LaLiga, earning plaudits from across Spain and allegedly piquing the interests of Real Madrid. Refreshingly and tellingly, in a display of the loyalty that would stand the test of time and see him constantly gravitate towards Villarreal, he rebuffed the apparent interest. “There are many other things in football besides Real Madrid,” he said. “It’s clear that it is possible to say no to them, there is no doubt that they are a great team, but I also feel very satisfied and valued at my club. I hope I can continue growing at Villareal.”

National team boss Luis Aragonés was also convinced, as he included Cazorla – then uncapped at senior level – in his Spain squad for their glorious European Championship campaign in 2008.

Cazorla continued to play a part in the following season. Buoyed by international recognition, widespread interest from across Europe and the warmth of supporters, he scored eight times and assisted on four occasions despite Villarreal’s drop from second place to fifth. He also played a pivotal part in their Champions League campaign, the team’s run in the illustrious competition halted in the quarter-finals as Arsenal overcame Villarreal 4-1 on aggregate. Cazorla, as fate would have it, missed out with a fractured fibula.

The fitness woes that cruelly stymied his progress would continue. The 2009/10 season was one to forget for Cazorla, and his inability to hit form at vital periods of the campaign saw his dream of representing Spain at the 2010 World Cup crushed. Muscle tears and relentless setbacks inhibited him, and while he scored and assisted five times, the flamboyance and grace which connoted themselves with the midfielder’s aesthetic style failed to propel Villarreal to a strong league finish, as Juan Carlos Garrido’s maiden season at the club saw them place seventh. 

If 2009/10 had been a campaign of frustration for Cazorla, though, the subsequent season provided the perfect tonic. Villarreal were marvellous to watch; there was positional rotation, quick interplay between forwards, and the little Spaniard was the nucleus of their attacking movements. While the team finished fourth – two places lower than they did in a heralded campaign under Pellegrini three years prior – they were among the most exciting sides in the world to watch. 

Cazorla, drifting infield from the left-hand side and wreaking havoc among opposition defences, was excellent. He scored five times and assisted his teammates on nine occasions, as the likes of Giuseppe Rossi and Nilmar became beneficiaries of the midfielder’s inventiveness. Although the playmaker relished operating in a free-flowing, expressive system that epitomised this era of incisive, pass-and-move combinations on Spanish shores, more pleasing was that he effectively avoided injuries altogether and played in 36 LaLiga games. 

He shone at Villarreal, and somewhat inevitably, other clubs sat forward and took note. The slight yet balanced frame of Cazorla was effortlessly dismantling top-flight defences, and El Submarino Amarillo faced an uphill battle – one in which they eventually fell to defeat – to retain his services. An ambitious Málaga outfit came calling, with the midfielder’s former boss Pellegrini at the helm. Cazorla spent just one season in Andalusia, his nine goals and six assists in LaLiga, married with displays of impressive quality across the creative attacking line, convincing top clubs of his talents. A new challenge awaited, and Wenger was particularly enamoured by the ability of the 27-year-old. 

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Aligned with his arrival at Arsenal was a cultural change in English football, it wasn’t merely a case of a gifted, Spanish playmaker joining the Premier League, but a nod to an increasingly prevalent ethos. In the same summer, David Silva left Valencia for Manchester City, and the preceding year saw Juan Mata depart the Mestalla for Chelsea. What was once a division focused upon physical edge and durability saw prestigious clubs identify a trend across European football at the time, with diminutive, technically outstanding attackers become creative fulcrums of leading teams. 

Cazorla didn’t let Arsenal down. In his first season on English soil, his adaptation was seamless, and his record of productivity spoke for itself: 24 goal involvements – half goals, half assists – in a completely alien environment reflected his influence. He quickly became a fans’ favourite at the Emirates and was named the Player of the Season by Gunners fans having featured in each of their 38 Premier League matches, a return bettered by no other member of the squad in 2012/13.

Once English football had caught a glimpse of Cazorla’s offerings, they – Arsenal fans in particular – simply craved more. However, only months after the conclusion of his decorated first campaign with the Gunners, what seemed to be an insignificant knock would spell the beginning of the end for him in the Premier League.

Obliviously, Cazorla broke a small bone in his ankle as he participated in an international meeting between Spain and Chile. Typical of his demeanour and reluctance to cause a fuss, Cazorla played through the pain barrier, as he unsuccessfully attempted to shrug off the discomfort that would result in bacteria eating away at eight centimetres of his Achilles tendon.

Seasons passed and anticipation waned. Hopes of seeing the same Santi lighting up the Premier League had become unrealistic, as injuries began to plague what had initially promised to be a legendary tenure at Arsenal. He played 46 times in 2013/14, consciously forcing himself through the uneasiness of a niggling ankle problem, and a further 53 in the subsequent campaign. It is, in fact, astonishing to recount the sheer number of times Cazorla put his personal fitness problems aside to provide the Gunners with their most dependable creative spark.

The pain would ultimately spell trouble for the midfielder, though, as he became progressively unable to work his magic on the big stage. His body enabled him just 21 senior outings in all competitions in 2015/16 before he was afforded a paltry 11 in the following campaign, all of which arrived before the fateful win against Ludogorets in October. And that, quite simply, was that for Cazorla. The closest he came to greeting the Emirates faithful again was in a training session ahead of Arsenal’s Europa League semi-final clash against Atlético Madrid in 2018. 

Speaking to The Guardian, he said: “I asked if I could [train] because I didn’t know if I would play again. It was nothing much really: four laps, dribble a bit, but just being there again on that grass, just to feel the warmth of the crowd was lovely. To think: ‘I’m going to take something with me, even if I don’t play again.'”

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Thankfully, not just for Cazorla himself, but for the footballing world as a collective, we have not been condemned to lamenting what a player the Spaniard was, but instead what a player he still is. When his contract expired at the end of 2017/18, coinciding with Wenger’s departure from the Emirates, his future was in limbo, and unwanted talk of retirement inevitably crept in.

But Cazorla doesn’t know when he’s beaten – rightly or wrongly, given his admirable if ill-advised oversight of an ankle injury that would rob him of his peak years. Seasons of silent anguish and mental challenges riddled the back-end of his Arsenal career, but his past struggles have made his recent success all the more satisfying, with Villarreal reaping the rewards of their prodigal son’s return to El Madrigal.

A self-proclaimed “jigsaw puzzle”, there was no telling whether or not an Indian Summer could be pieced together by the little magician. But he impressed Javier Calleja in pre-season training last year – both on and off the pitch – and earned himself a season-long contract. For the third separate time, Cazorla had a point to prove. This occasion represented perhaps the greatest task of them all, as he sought to disprove the assumption that his best years were behind him.

Cazorla himself had suggested that his second departure from Villarreal was a ‘see you later’ rather than a ‘goodbye’, and it soon felt as though he had never even left as excitement grew ahead of his third bow in the infamous yellow strip. 

A deal was agreed in understated circumstances: his arrival was, of course, without a transfer fee, and a short-term contract with an option of a further year was only too willingly signed. His unveiling, however, followed a slightly more left-field route. An empty capsule filled with smoke evaporated in tandem with the emergence of Cazorla’s slight frame, just to the right of an accompanying magician, before the eyes of Villarreal’s adoring – and admittedly perplexed – faithful. It was bizarre, but more predictably, a trademark smile adorned the beaming face of the experienced playmaker.

He was excited to be back – and the fans were delighted to have him. But even in the midst of the mutual affection that continues to attach itself to Cazorla’s relationship with the supporters, expectations were understandably low. Having failed to play a single minute of football in 2017/18, mere pre-season cameos were met with appreciation from Villarreal’s fans. But in times of doubt, strong characters emerge, and few footballing figures have portrayed the desire and determination to come out of tough times on the other side in a more inspirational fashion than the 34-year-old. 

Instead of settling for the role of a cult hero, Cazorla carved his way into Villarreal’s starting line-up as he did 12 years ago and established himself as a mainstay. He played 3,307 minutes of club football last season, emerging as a shining light in an otherwise underwhelming campaign for his beloved team. 

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Radio Vila-real reporter Javi Mata told Sky Sports: “He has been the only good thing about this season.” He continued: “If he was already loved a lot here, today he is loved more. He is an idol for the people. He makes them remember what this club was. He is a boy they have all seen grow up.” That, perhaps, is the foundation of the unique relationship that Cazorla shares with Villarreal: years have gone by, they have both gone their separate ways, but fate has brought them together once more. He’s still the same Santi, and El Madrigal inhabits the same club that holds a considerable place of his heart.

Cazorla netted seven goals for Villarreal – only Samuel Chukwueze and striking trio Gerard Moreno, Carlos Bacca and Karl Toko Ekambi scored more – and set up his teammates on ten occasions. Not a single player in yellow outdid the 34-year-old’s goal contribution of 13 in LaLiga last term; this would be an impressive feat for a settled player in their prime, let alone a veteran who has been forced to build match fitness along with in-game sharpness since he was fast-tracked into the first-team fold. 

Villarreal only finished 14th last season, and a fair case can be put forward to suggest that Cazorla’s influence chiefly kept the Spaniards afloat. Man of the match performances such as that of his showing against Real Madrid in the 2-2 draw inspired those around him to continue pushing for survival as a dismal campaign in the top flight threatened to sink El Submarino Amarillo.

Cazorla’s mesmerising technical qualities have always been his selling point, but he continues to be among the most likeable figures in football. It was a successful season individually for the midfielder but there were downs to balance his ups. He was, for example, despondent after missing a penalty in Villarreal’s 2-1 defeat to Real Betis, which dealt a then-crushing blow to their hopes of avoiding relegation.

The ex-Oviedo protege’s efforts paid dividends, however, as he led by example from the left, ushering his team to safety. Significantly, and rather fittingly, he was rewarded with a surprise call-up to the Spain squad in June. As he enters the twilight of his career, Cazorla is still offering his services to the national team but admitted that the prospect of a recall was “unthinkable” during the more arduous times, even for him, particularly when amputation had been one of the dwindling number of options.

Cazorla is a dreamer, though, and the one constant throughout his rise, demise and rejuvenation has been his unmistakable smile. He may now be a “jigsaw”, as he eloquently put it, but there is no puzzle when it comes to identifying just how remarkable a career he has enjoyed and, most crucially, is still enjoying. “Now I see football in a different way,” Cazorla told BBC last year. “Before, I didn’t appreciate being in a hotel, the coach journey to the stadium … but I fought really hard for two years to have these moments again. I try to enjoy it and take advantage of every second because I don’t know how long it will last.” 

Cazorla won’t be around forever, and as the old adage proclaims, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. While the fleet-footed Spaniard is still blissfully leaving defenders in his wake and encapsulating his audiences, we shouldn’t take the third chapter of this extraordinary love story for granted.

By Luke Osman @LukeOsmanRS

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