x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Conduct that is very becoming from Santi Cazorla

The Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger, is infatuated with his summer signing, the Spanish midfielder, and Richard Jolly can see why.

Santi Cazorla, above, was signed by Arsene Wenger this summer. The Arsenal manager has said the midfielder
Santi Cazorla, above, was signed by Arsene Wenger this summer. The Arsenal manager has said the midfielder "makes everybody a better player". Shaun Botterill / Getty Images; David Klein / Sportimage

Often when managers gush about their players they are actually extolling their character, rather than revelling in their ability. The bastion of reliability, the vocal leader, the footballer who has used every ounce of his limited talent to forge a successful career: all tend to be recipients of paeans of praise. They are receiving plaudits for their professionalism. It takes an informed eye to recognise their achievements.

Yet sometimes it is more simple. A manager becomes a supporter. And so it is, that after almost 16 years at Arsenal and the best part of three decades in coaching, Arsene Wenger has reverted to his original incarnation: a fan.

"If you love football, just watch him play," he said of Santi Cazorla after Saturday's 3-1 win at West Ham United. "He was a delight to watch from the first minute to the last."

He went on to compare the Spaniard to Glenn Hoddle, the first great playmaker to feature in one of his teams, and say that, in a comment echoed by Theo Walcott, it was hard to tell which is Cazorla's stronger foot, such is his proficiency with either.

For the record, it was his left that supplied the sweet strike from 25 yards for Arsenal's third goal. But Cazorla's is a contribution that cannot be measured merely in goals and assists and the ball, played from deep in his own, that permitted Olivier Giroud to send Walcott in for the crucial second goal was both more important and more instructive.

"He makes everybody a better player," said Wenger.

As his style of play has long shown, the Frenchman is one of the game's great romantics. If he has developed a footballing crush on his new fantasista, it is not altogether surprising. Cazorla's understated excellence, his 91 per cent pass completion rate and his capacity to create, his prioritisation of the team over the individual: it is as though he is programmed to appeal to Wenger.

The Frenchman has been given a fresh stimulus. Sir Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager, has long said that management keeps him young. The same seems to be true of his old adversary. There is a renewed enthusiasm to Wenger after his summer trading. It is the Cazorla effect.

Besides meaning that Jack Wilshere, finally on the comeback trail after 14 months on the sidelines, does not need to be rushed back, the greater consequence of his excellence is to restore Arsenal's self-esteem.

The departure of Robin van Persie, following similar sales as Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry, Emmanuel Adebayor, Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas decamped, seemed to underline Arsenal's diminishing status. And yet if it became their version of Catch 22 - aiming to develop superstars but knowing that, if they do, predators will pluck them from their grasp - the alternative, of a situation where no envious glances were cast at Emirates Stadium because Arsenal possessed no one the affluent admired, is far worse.

In Cazorla, they have a footballer that rivals can covet and neutrals admire. Given Chelsea's sudden addiction to signing flair players, Manchester United's trio of Van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Shinji Kagawa and Manchester City's galaxy of attacking talent, it would be an exaggeration to say any need Cazorla.

But nor should Arsenal harbour an inferiority complex now they have a creator the equal of any.

To borrow a phrase from American sports, he has become Arsenal's franchise player. He defines them, he directs their play, subtly and smartly. Walcott offered a more elegant choice of words when calling Cazorla "the conductor" of the orchestra.

The surprise, perhaps, is that his arrival generated so little noise. It says something about English football's attitude to the Spanish game and the focus on the duopoly of Real Madrid and Barcelona that Cazorla's brilliance for Villarreal and Malaga had gone comparatively unrecognised. Seven games into his Premier League career, recognition has been both slow and swift.

Now the secret is out. Santi Cazorla: just watch him play.

>>>

Eight years and five months. Three hundred and ten games. Almost 28,000 minutes of football.

Whichever way you describe it, Brad Friedel's record-breaking reign in the goals of Blackburn Rovers, Aston Villa and Tottenham Hotspur was long. And yet, while it ended on Sunday, the clock had been ticking since Spurs signed Hugo Lloris at the end of the August.

Not since May 2004 had Friedel missed a Premier League match until Andre Villas-Boas - a 26 year old when the American sat out Blackburn's encounter with Birmingham City - dropped him for Tottenham's 2-0 victory against Aston Villa on Sunday.

In one respect, it is eminently sensible. There is little point in buying one of the world's top goalkeepers - a category that clearly includes Lloris - and not picking him. A 41 year old is not the future; a 25 year old obviously is.

There is scarcely a side in the world that would be weakened by including the Frenchman. And yet Friedel's athleticism and agility, his superb saves and his consistency, both in terms of performance and fitness, rendered his exclusion incredibly harsh.

It may be of little consolation but 310 consecutive Premier League games is a record that might never be beaten.

sports@thenational.ae

twitter Follow us @SprtNationalUAE