Arsenal's understated great Santi Cazorla deserves more from probable farewell
It was a rare outing on the Emirates Stadium pitch. Typically, sadly, it was not in first-team kit, but trousers and a t-shirt bearing the message "Merci Arsene".
Santi Cazorla was among the current players forming a guard of honour for Arsene Wenger after the manager's final home game, Sunday's 5-0 win over Burnley. Arsenal could have been forgiven for bracketing a man who has not featured since 2016 and who might have lost a foot to gangrene among the ex-players who were selected at least 100 times by Wenger and who were invited back to mark his parting. Cazorla has 180 games to his name, but only 12 in the past 30 months.
He feels more past than present. Yet whereas one who is definitely leaving the playing staff, Per Mertesacker, was afforded a warm reception in his valedictory appearance, the Spaniard blended into background. There is nothing as definitive where he is concerned, but without Wenger around to give annual contract extensions to the injury prone and with a new manager likely to want to shape his own squad, it is hard to imagine a 33-year-old who has missed Arsenal's last 102 matches remaining. Cazorla's deal expires this summer; he has said he is yet to be offered another, and Villarreal reportedly want to lure him back to his former club.
If Wenger's ending -- Sunday's game at Huddersfield has little meaning for an Arsenal side marooned in sixth -- feels sadly anti-climactic, the same may be said of Cazorla's. He was the understated great of the Frenchman's final years, lacking the price tag and profile of Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil and, more recently, Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and the sense of narrative surrounding Brits schooled at the club like Theo Walcott, Aaron Ramsey, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jack Wilshere.
But arguably player and manager are linked. Wenger's leaving gift, the golden trophy awarded to Arsenal for the Invincibles' unbeaten league season, served as an unwanted reminder that he has not won the league since 2004. That could have been different; it should have been; perhaps, but for an injury whose significance was not immediately apparent, it would have been.
Without relitigating too many old arguments, the difference in financial resources meant that Arsenal began at a disadvantage in each of the subsequent 14 title races. Yet 2015-16 nevertheless afforded the great missed opportunity to add Wenger's fourth league title.
It was the season when Chelsea collapsed completely, the Manchester clubs underachieved in harmony, Liverpool did not dismiss Brendan Rodgers until October, when their league season already looked a write-off, and Tottenham were not ready to win the league. They all created a vacuum. Arsenal should have filled it. Leicester's 5000-1 outsiders did instead.
When Wenger's side drew 1-1 at Norwich in November, they had arguably had the toughest first 14 fixtures of any of the contenders and were only two points off the summit. They finished 10 adrift of Leicester. When they drew at Carrow Road, the concerns were that Laurent Koscielny and Sanchez came off injured. Cazorla completed the game despite a knee problem, but did not reappear in the league until April.
Perhaps Arsenal's innate Arsenalness would have ensured they did not become champions; perhaps their mental and defensive frailties and their propensity for spring slides would have ruled them out. Yet instead it was a symbolic tale of the modern Arsenal: another ill-timed injury, another story of misfortune, another "if only".
Because Cazorla was Arsenal's understated facilitator. He was more than just one player. He was Arsenal's best central midfielder since Cesc Fabregas. Cazorla made Ozil play, and when the German was at his best, Olivier Giroud tended to get more goals; there was a time when they were the division's most potent assister-and-scorer combination. The second half of the 2015-16 season was notable for the striker's comparative goal drought and the playmaker's relative shortage of assists.
He was a transformative figure for Francis Coquelin. Without Cazorla, the Frenchman was an over-promoted squad player. With him, he was the defensive midfielder Arsenal had long lacked. Opposites dovetailed, each doing what the other could not. Arsenal averaged 2.17 points per league game when the "C team" of Coquelin and Cazorla started; throughout a full season, that amounts to 82 points, more than Arsenal have got in a decade and more than Leicester's title-winning team secured.
Cazorla's importance was concealed, but he knitted together what has often become an incoherent, disorganised side. It is no coincidence that Arsenal became unstitched during a two-and-a-half-year period when he was largely a spectator. He was one of the last true Wenger players, at least in the second half of the manager's reign, when small technicians abounded and when one of enviable ability helped define a stylish team. Starting off as No. 10, ending up as a deep-lying midfielder via a stint operating off the left, Cazorla was a loyalist who highlighted Wenger's gift for reinvention.
While the question of "what if?" is easily asked and rarely definitely answered, it is legitimate to wonder if Arsenal would have become champions in 2016 had a catalyst of Cazorla's class stayed fit.
It would have been the perfect ending and while, Wenger being Wenger, he would not have headed off into the sunset then -- and indeed it could have prolonged his reign -- his eventual departure may not have come amid such a sense of deflation. For Wenger and Cazorla alike, their goodbyes -- one confirmed, the other probable -- could have been very different. And if it is "adios, Santi," a luckless maestro merited more than this.
Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.