Is The Magic Still There?Posted: September 10, 2012
Amid another rather frantic summer at Arsenal, Andrey Arshavin’s remaining at the club went largely unnoticed, as many expected him to be another on the list of departures. This was not for want of trying on Arsenal’s part, but it was seemingly Arshavin himself who asserted his desire to remain in North London. His career at the club looked long dead after his loan to Zenit St. Petersburg and the circumstances surrounding it, but having him around may prove itself to be far more blessing than curse for Arsène Wenger.
Expectations were monumentally high upon his arrival, and with good cause. He shone at EURO 2008 with Russia and at £15,000,000, he was the club’s most expensive purchase ever. He entered a team in dire need of a creative outlet, with Cesc Fabregas in the midst of a long-term injury. In the month of February, Arsenal were unable to mustre a single league goal. His early performances were encouraging, but ultimately fruitless, as Arsenal fans were subjected to four of the dullest games ever seen in world football. Really. Any who also remember the 0-0 draw at home to Fulham will know that is no exaggeration. It was not until March that Arshavin really started to have a great effect on the games. His first assist came in a 3-1 triumph over West Brom, as he came ever closer to getting a goal of his own, but it was his performance in the 4-0 win against Blackburn that stands out in the memory as the game in which the Russian truly ‘announced his arrival’ to the Premier League. The Dubious Goals Committee took the first strike of that day from him, judging it instead to be an Andre Ooijer own goal, but there was no arguing with who converted his magnificent second one. He burned past Rovers right back Danny Simpson and curled it past Paul Robinson from an extremely tight angle in marvellous fashion. He would later set up Emmanuel Eboué for their third. It was the kind of performance that the fans were eagerly awaiting after his signing.
He turned more provider than scorer in the following matches, providing three vital assists and just one goal in his next four starts, at which point the most memorable performance of his Arsenal career arrived. With fourth place all-but secured, Arsenal were coming up against a Liverpool side who were still in search of their first league title since 1990. Arshavin started after his somewhat mystifying demotion to the bench for the previous game, which was an FA Cup semi final loss to Chelsea. The home side were by far the better side right through the first half, but it was Arsenal who took the lead shortly before the break, through a short-range Arshavin finish off the crossbar, after some intelligent play by Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas. Some truly abysmal defending allowed Fernando Torres and Yossi Benayoun to put Liverpool ahead, but further slack defending, this time from the hosts allowed Arshavin to add a stunning second and then his smash in his third. Fernando Torres capitalised on being in a ground duel with Mickael Silvestre to bring them back to 3-3 and as they searched for a winner, Theo Walcott and the Russian managed to counterattack, leaving Arshavin to slam his fourth past Pepe Reina, in a style similar to Mario Balotelli’s second goal against Germany at EURO 2012. Another Benayoun goal meant that the scores ended level, but the game was all about Arshavin. Funnily, he was probably one of the poorest players in the pitch. His passing was abysmal and in custom fashion, he rarely gave any defensive help, but he produced four individual moments of brilliance. The whole Arsenal side had just four shots on target all evening – all Arshavin’s and all of them goals.
This game was the benchmark he set for himself, and the style in which he continued, though to a lesser extent. He was never a hard worker but he was the ultimate highlights player: capable of seemingly doing absolutely nothing for 90 minutes and then when the highlights are viewed, he looked like every attack’s most lively player. He was different from what Arsenal had at the time: he was all end product. His lack of effort was compensated for in his attacking contribution. At the start of the 2009/10 season, Wenger spoke some words about the forward which now, with hindsight, are more a sad eulogy to his lost potential. “The Premier League needs a star like Arshavin now that Cristiano Ronaldo has gone… Arshavin stands for all that we love in football.” It was no great overstatement at the time, he truly was at that level. The 09/10 season was a mixed one for him.
He started excellently, continuing his form from the end of the previous season, but after long-term injuries to their only two senior strikers, Robin van Persie and Nicklas Bendtner, meant that desperate plans were needed. This led to Arshavin playing as a lone centre forward (or an early ‘false 9’, even) between November and February. This affected his productivity but he played the role admirably. He picked up a season ending injury in April, at which point Arsenal were still very much in the running for the title, but with him, Fàbregas, van Persie, William Gallas and Thomas Vermaelen all absent towards the season’s end, the championship hunt ended rather meekly. He did not retain the fantastic form he showed in glimpses through the year, on account of his unfortunate-but-necessary being played out of position, but he was an important player for them and it is no coincidence that their form wavered badly in his absence.
The next season was one that promised much but delivered little for Arsenal. Arshavin began the season as a regular starter but as the season wore on, Samir Nasri’s and Theo Walcott’s respective form meant that he was shunted to the bench on various occasions when all players were fit. Though regular injuries to Cesc Fabregas meant that he was by no means bereft of starts. His offering became less pronounced, but was no less significant. In fact, his record of having contributed to 28 goals (10 goals and an excellent 18 assists) was an improvement on both his 09/10 form (18 – 11 goals, 6 assists) and his brief 08/09 total (13 – 6 goals, 7 assists), but beyond the pure stats, he seemed a far more subdued player, lacking in his usual panache and verve, but was still an extremely useful asset. It was evident to see that he was slowly drifting outside of Arsène Wenger’s immediate plans, but from the bench and occasionally starting, he should have been a very convenient option.
Within the 10/11 season he provided what was, for myself and many others, his most memorable moment (so far) and one of the club’s greatest in recent years, scoring the winner in the victory over Barcelona. He was introduced from the bench and clipped in a lovely curling shot 12 minutes from time to give the fans a truly spectacular moment.
The heights he had reached were confined to memory by the time the 11/12 season came around. To say Arsenal were in disarray would be a grand understatement. Although he was the scorer in their first league win with the strangest of goals in the 1-0 win over Swansea. He was to make very little impact over the rest of the season, which really hit its nadir in the hateful game against Manchester United, when he was booed on by a moronic yet vocal section of his own fans. From there, it seemed he could not really recover his Arsenal career. What looked to be his final action in an Arsenal shirt was one which showed that he had not lost his ability to create from very little, providing the cross for Thierry Henry to score his last goal for the club, away at Sunderland.
The criticisms that he has ‘never played in his natural position’, and that this was the reasons for his tailing off are lazy and misguided. Anyone who has watched Arsenal will know that a player who does not look to collect the ball from deep is completely unable to play in the ‘number 10’ position for the club and in order for Arshavin to play in this preferred role, the team would have to play to his tempo, with everything based around him. This team was not built for Arshavin, but did shift in its style somewhat to accommodate and aid him. He played well for Russia at the EUROs, but not in his ‘natural position’. Moreover, he was playing down the left hand side. It showed that it was never talent that was absent for him, nor ability to play on the wing; Arshavin had simply lost his motivation to play for Arsenal.
He was loaned to Zenit St. Petersburg in order for him to gain playing time ahead of EURO 2012. This looked to be the end but according to Zenit, he refused the move, with their general director Maxim Mitrofanov citing a clause only known to Arshavin himself as the stumbling block. If the former Russian captain can show his willingness to fight for a place, as looks to be the case with his refusal to move on, Arsenal still have an extraordinarily talented player. He has been nothing close to being a ‘flop’. His record currently stands at a 65 goals and assists (combined, not each) in 131 games, and pre-11/12 contribution cannot be undervalued.
As things are, Arsenal fans will feel that they never quite saw the best of him. The player who was so instrumental and brilliant in the early part of his Arsenal career has not disappeared; nor has the less spectacular but just as efficient Arshavin of 10/11. The genius is still there, but who knows whether he will truly show himself for Arsenal again.