Santi Cazorla had not played for nearly two years when he was released by Arsenal in 2018 – but there wasn’t a Gunners fan out there who wasn’t gutted when they heard he was leaving.
Cazorla’s last appearance for Arsenal was in October 2016, since when he has undergone several operations and even needed a skin graft from his arm to help repair an Achilles injury.
Yet he still left supporters with plenty of wonderful memories.
Given it has been far too long since we’ve been able to watch Cazorla play football, you could perhaps be forgiven for forgetting just what a delightful player he is.
The Spaniard arrived at Arsenal as an attacking midfielder and was always a threatening, incisive player, ending his debut campaign at the Emirates with 12 goals and 14 assists.
But it has been in a deeper role that Cazorla has really proved his class, dictating play and controlling the tempo of the game like a puppet master pulling the strings.
"You couldn't get the ball off him in a phone box". – Jamie Redknapp on Cazorla. pic.twitter.com/FfsdMvgVAz
— Mike Sanz (@mikesanz19) August 18, 2017
Part of the charm of Cazorla came in that, before he arrived at Arsenal, he had not played for any of Europe’s biggest clubs.
Instead, he had built his reputation at Recreativo Huelva, Villarreal and Malaga. In his only season at Recreativo he helped the side finish eighth in their first season after relegation, while he appeared in the Champions League for the latter two.
Cazorla’s performances in Spain caught the eye of Real Madrid, but he rejected Los Blancos in 2008.
“There are many other things in football besides Real Madrid,” he said at the time. “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.”
He added: “I hope I can continue growing at Villarreal because I am young and I’m only starting off with the national team.”
He just doesn’t score bad goals, look.
Also, he celebrates them by kissing his children’s names, which he has tattooed on his wrists. Just lovely.
What is the meaning of life? Is there life after death? What are you going to get in your meal deal at lunch?
All some of life’s big questions, but right up there has to be asking whether Cazorla is right or left footed.
Arsene Wenger himself tried to answer this, but even the Arsenal boss sounded unconvinced: “He is right footed but when you watch him play you don’t know.”
We can’t quite imagine Cazorla singing along to We Hate Tottenham or leading some anti-Spurs chant, a la Jack Wilshere, he’s just too damn nice, but the Spaniard proved he Gets It in his first North London Derby back in 2012.
After Emmanuel Adebayor had put Tottenham in front at the Emirates, Cazorla was at the heartbeat of Arsenal’s comeback, scoring one himself and providing the assist for another as the Gunners triumphed 5-2, with the midfielder named man of the match.
Cazorla has to be up there with fellow Spaniard Juan Mata as one of the nicest footballers in the game.
When asked by Arsenal’s official website why he always smiles so much, his answer was simple: “Because I’m always happy.”
Arriving at Arsenal while the club were in the midst of a lengthy trophy drought, Cazorla has played a key role in two of their three FA Cup triumphs over the last four years.
With Arsenal 2-0 down against Hull City in 2014, it was the little magician who stepped up to score a sublime free-kick to drag his side back into the game, and he was named man of the match as they thrashed Aston Villa a year later.
Cazorla had to undergo nine operations on an Achilles injury – at one stage there were even fears he may need to have his foot amputated due to an infection.
“It’s very sad. What Santi has gone through is unbelievable. It’s really, really sad,” Wenger said.
But Cazorla kept on fighting, and the smile remained on his face.