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Arsenal's Santi Cazorla can play on either wing or in a more central role.
Arsenal's Santi Cazorla can play on either wing or in a more central role.

Cazorla deal paying handsome dividends for Arsenal fans

Shrewd Wenger has gained from Malaga's financial problems, writes Andy Mitten.

It is understandable when Arsenal fans do not take the departures of their best players well, nor like to be perceived as a selling club. Thierry Henry and Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri all left, then Robin van Persie, their top scorer, moved on in August.

The arrival of the Spanish winger Santi Cazorla, 27, has helped soften the blow.

He cost what already seems like a bargain 16 million (Dh94.1m) from Malaga in August and is showing signs of a promising link up with another close season recruit, the French striker Oliver Giroud, who arrived from the Ligue 1 champions Montpellier.

The Asturian from Spain's green north, was widely rated to be the best player in Spain outside of the big two in recent seasons.

He was instrumental in Villarreal's success before signing for Malaga for 21 million (Dh99.4m) - a fee Malaga neglected to pay in full - in July 2011.

It seemed like good business at the time, but its impact was catastrophic. Cazorla had played in 37 of Villarreal's 38 league games as they finished fourth and qualified for the Champions League.

Not only that, he was hugely popular, a catalyst in the dressing room and on the pitch. Villarreal would bemoan his absence long into an injury ravaged season in which they were relegated.

Cazorla played in all 38 league games for Malaga last season, again for a team which finished fourth, their highest ever finish, but his wages were not paid on time and, with no shortage of suitors, he decided to leave.

Malaga had a 45m buyout clause for the player, but their position was weakened as they had been in breach of their own contract.

Needing money, they cashed in for less than half the buyout figure, selling both Cazorla and their top scorer Rondon.

Fans feared a fire sale, especially as the money from the two transfers was impounded by the Spanish tax authorities to pay off debts, including those to Villarreal, who were still owed 3.5m. Those worries were lessened when, according to Cazorla, the money for his transfer "helped to solve some [financial] problems at Malaga."

Arsene Wenger, often a shrewd judge of a player, pounced with a rare paid up front deal.

Yet again, Cazorla found his career shaped by football's economic problems- he left his local club Real Oviedo aged 17 in 2003 after they had gone into financial meltdown and suffered consecutive relegations.

Villarreal bought him then and in eight years with the club he established himself as a Spanish international, after first going on loan for a season to Recreativo Huelva in 2006/07.

Back with Villarreal, the team thrived with the former Arsenal winger Robert Pires on one wing and Cazorla on the other.

Capped 48 times by Spain alongside other diminutive talents such as Xavi and David Silva, Cazorla is in the squad to face Belarus tomorrow and France next Tuesday, where he could come up against teammate Giroud, just as they did in the quarter-finals of Euro 2012.

In the qualifiers for that tournament, Cazorla had a better pass completion rate for balls into the area than the more feted Andres Iniesta, Xabi Alonso, Sergio Busquets and Xavi. Cazorla, who is comfortable using both feet, seldom wastes a ball.

He can also play on the left or right wing, plus in a central role behind the main striker, as at Arsenal now.

Andrew Cole, The National's columnist, has been impressed by how quickly Cazorla has adapted to life in England. "I was worried that he'd be a luxury player, one who doesn't work for the team, yet he runs his socks off," he said.

"He's so good that Arsenal can give him the ball in any position and know that he's got enough ability to cause problems. He scored a super goal at the weekend [against West Ham United] and he's doing so well that it's only a matter of time before people start speculating that he'll be the next Arsenal star to be sold."

Arsenal fans will not want to think about that and nor will Cazorla for he is far too busy enjoying his football.

"I love this league," he said recently of his happy start to life in England. Arsenal fans are starting to love Cazorla too.


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