Santi Cazorla is staring at the end of his playing career.
And yet the 35-year-old Spanish midfielder might consider himself lucky to even be in this position after a protracted period spent nursing a severe ankle injury.
It robbed Cazorla of two seasons. Many deemed his career to be over, before the Asturias-born maestro completed a feelgood comeback in 2018.
Cazorla, then at Arsenal during his setback and rehabilitation, would eventually leave the Gunners to re-join Villarreal. There, he’s been nothing short of a revelation. Lionel Messi is the only player to assist more goals (25) in La Liga since Cazorla (16) debuted for the Yellow Submarine, in fact. This, and more, even resulted in a recall to the Spain national team.
Cazorla’s Villarreal contract runs out this summer. Ordinarily, this would make him a free agent, but the situation is complicated by the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent suspension of all top-level football across Europe. The season may well run on past the expiry of his, and many a professional footballer’s, current deal.
In any case, Cazorla is supposedly thinking past the summer already. Spanish football journalist Guillem Balague says he plans to play another two years, so it’s worth asking where his talents will take him next.
“It was frustrating to not be able to say goodbye to a club who treated me so well,” Cazorla told BBC Sport last month. You get the sense there’s unfinished business with the 13-time English champions. Cazorla would initially join Arsenal in August 2012 following an impressive spell with Málaga.
He’d go on to make no fewer than 180 appearances, registering 29 goals and 45 assists, before – as mentioned above – a ruptured achilles tendon in October 2016 ultimately ended his Gunners career.
Arsene Wenger, then head coach, would renew his contract so he could focus on recovering, but with things changing at the club Cazorla opted to return to former club Villarreal once fully back to fitness.
Now with fellow countryman and former teammate Mikel Arteta calling the shots, there’s no better time for the man dubbed ‘The Magician’ to once again put on an Arsenal jersey, in the process he’d get to finally call time on his terms.
Since returning to El Madrigal, where he announced himself to a worldwide audience in the early 2000s, Cazorla has been made captain and through his standout performances – 19 goals and 18 assists in 75 matches – earned a Spain recall.
Cazorla’s present deal expires this summer hence, speculation about his future. However, given this is home now, there’s a strong possibility of remaining at Villarreal – who have been nothing but good to Cazorla and vice versa – if no other club approaches him.
Considering he turns 36 later this year, plus the outside chance of representing La Roja at next summer’s pan-European championship, it’s not crazy to imagine he’d want to be somewhere playing time is more or less guaranteed.
The Yellow Submarine currently sit eighth in La Liga and eight points off a Champions League spot with 11 matches remaining. When fit, manager Javier Calleja doesn’t hesitate to play Cazorla. Could the same be said elsewhere?
Thomas Vermaelen, Jeremy Mathieu, Kevin Prince-Boateng… Barcelona are no strangers when it comes to making left-field deals for players aged 30 or above, for better or worse.
One reason Villarreal have been ticking along nicely in recent seasons is Cazorla’s innate ability to dictate the speed and tempo of a game. This characteristic possessed by Cazorla has long been lauded and goes a long way to explain his 81 caps with the Spanish national team spanning 11 years.
It seems like a lifetime ago, but his 2016/17 campaign with Arsenal was shaping up to be a productive one. While on the shelf, former national teammate – and premier midfielder of his generation – Xavi spoke effusively about Cazorla, attributing his style to that belonging to a Barcelona footballer while questioning why his former club didn’t move heaven and earth to sign him before.
“The surprising thing is when you find someone like Cazorla that has [a natural understanding of ‘space-time’],” said Xavi.
“I asked him: ‘How did you learn this?’ ‘No, no, I was trained at Aviles and then at Oviedo and then I went to Recre…’ There are natural talents. I ask myself: How didn’t Barca sign him? He already knows the style.”
This could be the moment to correct that oversight. For one, Barça – and the powers that be – found out Cazorla can still do a job in last season’s 4-4 draw with Villarreal (see tweet below).
Santi Cazorla created eight (8) chances against Barcelona; the joint-most chances created by a player in a single La Liga game this season.
At least double than any other player has managed against Barca all season. 😳 pic.twitter.com/8GLA5ZEyXz
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) April 2, 2019
He also wouldn’t cost a penny to sign given his contract situation. After the inevitable departure of Arturo Vidal – who seems to want to join Inter – Barca will have a midfield vacancy. Who wouldn’t want to see Cazorla, decked out in the Blaugrana strip, fill it?
Squawka Suggests: Emirates return (as a coach)
The romantic in us says a return to Arsenal is best for all parties concerned. Cazorla gets to say ‘goodbye’ to all those who stayed by his side while rehabilitating from that career-threatening injury.
Arteta not only inherits a fan-favourite but a natural born leader, one who can help guide those young players around him and still able to perform at the highest level despite edging towards the big four-oh.
Also, a post-playing career is firmly in Cazorla’s mind. Like many footballers, is keen to give back and help the next generation of players.
“Going back to Arsenal with Arteta is something that I think he will consider as a coach,” Balague also said.
“I asked him about it, he said yes, he will consider as a coach when he retires but he wants to play for two more years.
“I tell you what, Mikel Arteta and Cazorla together, really good friends first of all but really good special minds of football.”