Time for Arsenal to plan for life without Santi Cazorla and his mounting injuries
A midfielder that is perennially sidelined because of injury is hardly a new thing at Arsenal. The likes of Abou Diaby, Tomas Rosicky, Jack Wilshere and all Mikel Arteta all seemed to spend more time in recovery than in red-and-white.
Sadly, Santi Cazorla appears to be the latest to succumb to this injury curse. This time, Arsene Wenger must learn from his mistakes and ensure Arsenal are not reliant on a player with such chronic fitness problems.
Arsenal have arguably been too dependent on Cazorla for some time now. When he switched from a wide-playmaking role to central midfield in the winter of 2014, he became a one-man panacea for Arsenal's midfield problems.
Paired with Francis Coquelin, he adapted brilliantly to the deeper role, making use of his ambidextrous dribbling ability to weave his way through the opposition before firing early passes into the likes of Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez.
Cazorla is, in some respects, a "cheat player." His individual brilliance enabled him to paper over some of the structural cracks that ran through the Arsenal team. The problem is that his precise combination of skills is so idiosyncratic, so brilliantly unique, that he became irreplaceable. When he was absent, Arsenal's plans fell apart.
Unfortunately, Cazorla was unavailable for long periods through injury in each of the past two seasons. Without him, Wenger struggled to successfully reconfigure Arsenal's midfield. Sanchez and Ozil might have won more headlines, but in reality Cazorla was the integral component -- the centrifugal star operating at the heart of the team.
In the end, it took a switch to a new formation to rebalance the midfield. Installing a back-three afforded Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey the protection they need to develop a promising partnership. However, if Wenger has any intention of occasionally restoring a back four, he knows he needs another solution.
Cazorla's importance to the team was reflected in the fact that Wenger chose to activate an extension clause in his contract back in January. At the time, it was expected that he could be back playing before the end of the season. Now, the latest reports suggest there is "no timeframe" for his return, with some stories claiming he could be out until well into 2018.
Though the wisdom of Wenger's decision to extend Cazorla's contract could certainly be questioned, there's no doubt now about what the manager's course of action should be.
Arsenal simply can't count on Cazorla as a regular member of the matchday squad -- his fitness has to be considered a bonus. With Ramsey also susceptible to injury (and doubts about the future of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain), it's essential that Arsenal dip into the transfer market to add to their midfield options this summer.
Wenger might be tempted to try to replace Cazorla with Wilshere, who shares his capacity to slalom neatly between the lines of the opposition midfield. However, the Englishman is arguably even more brittle than his Spanish counterpart -- and did not produce the kind of form during his loan spell at Bournemouth to suggest he's up to the task.
Several names have been linked with the post: Leon Goretzka starred in his country's Confederations Cup triumph, and could be asked to join Shkodran Mustafi and Ozil in Arsenal's growing German contingent; Jean Michael Seri of Nice seems like a plausible option -- his technical quality and incisive passing making him a cheaper alternative to RB Leipzig's Naby Keita, whose price tag is reportedly £70 million.
There is still plenty of time for Arsenal to identify the appropriate player. What's clear is that, as painful as it might be, Arsenal must plan for a future without Cazorla.
He can still play a role in the squad, even if he does not feature regularly. Wenger once dubbed Rosicky one of the team's "technical leaders" -- an inspiration in training and an example when occasionally on the field.
However, Cazorla can no longer be the heartbeat of this team. The Spanish magician's last trick might just be a disappearing act.
James McNicholas is one of ESPN FC's Arsenal bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @gunnerblog.