The Man Who Time Forgot, and the Other Being ForgottenPosted: March 9, 2013
I have a general policy where Arsenal-related matters are concerned to never discuss the team of 2007/08. There has never been a greater case of ‘what could have been’, or even should have been. The stars of old had been moved on, the new wave was crashing past all in its path. The midfield was the standout area of the team. Cesc Fàbregas was the centre of operations, adding more productivity to his already excellent play, flanked by Mathieu Flamini, who covered the ‘dirty work’ (which is not to understate his own technical talent), with Tomáš Rosický and Aliaksandr Hleb on the wings.
Close friends off the pitch, the four together were perfectly balanced on it, protecting their defence well and creating enough that by mid-February, they sat atop the table, having scored a league high 54 goals in 26 games, losing just one game all season. They created enough that even Emmanuel Adebayor managed a 30-goal season. Then February 23rd happened and the rest needs no further documenting. With that, and the injustice at Anfield two months later, the season was over. The potential remained for something truly incredible. But then came the first of the rebuilding summers for Arsenal, as two major departures set the project back a further year. And so, the side that could have been the best Premier League side of its generation was no more.
The first of those departures was Flamini, on a free transfer, to AC Milan: the first of a number of contractual issues. The second was Hleb. He had been a frustrating figure in his first two seasons, his lack of really meaningful attacking play and apparent fear of ever having a shot (reflected in his goal record) forever negating his wonderful dribbling and ball retaining abilities. He was clearly talented, but ranked among the most infuriating players to have played for the club over the last decade. He had suffered greatly in the shadow of the domineering Thierry Henry, who is alleged to have been rather harsh in his treatment of the Belarussian. Free of this pressure he, like Fàbregas, had discovered productivity in the 07/08 season. His improvement saw a number of suitors come calling. The famous ice cream offer from Massimo Moratti when Arsenal were in Milan sticks in the mind, but it was Barcelona who eventually paid €17million for him in the summer.
To replace him, Arsenal signed Samir Nasri for £12million. It was a like-for-like move: both players are comfortable on either wing, if stronger on the right, and capable of playing as a number 10. Nasri not only filled part of the wide creativity void that Hleb’s move had left, but he filled the position of ‘frustrating but extremely talented dribbler’, too. Nasri’s next three years bore remarkable similarities to Hleb’s own three in North London. Hleb, however, would become a tale of warning. One to which Nasri should have listened.
The Frenchman started well at Arsenal, immediately taking a starting role, mostly on the left hand side thanks to Rosický’s long-term injury. His first goal came four minutes into his début, a close range finish at home to West Brom, and his second would come just weeks later, in the 4-0 win over Twente. He was inconsistent, as was to be expected of a 21 year old in a new league, especially one without a really fixed position. His best game was the 2-1 victory against Manchester United, in which he scored both goals and most perhaps most significantly, got the better of an admittedly ageing Gary Neville. One of few memories more painful to Arsenal fans than the destruction of the 07/08 side is the ‘50th game’, and within it, Gary Neville’s destruction of José Antonio Reyes. Nasri’s overcoming him was a testament to his being made of ‘stronger stuff’ than the Andalusian.
His inconsistency took over after Christmas or, more specifically, after Fàbregas’ long-term injury acquired in a 1-1 draw with Liverpool – a match in which Nasri made a quite brilliant assist for Robin van Persie. His dip in the second half of the season is testament to Fàbregas’ abilities to make his teammates better, as well as a mark of the fact that after the arrival of Andrey Arshavin, most of Arsenal’s play went down the left hand side, which he had made his own. A patchy, but overall promising first season.
Hleb’s 08/09 was significantly less successful, if not on paper, as Barcelona completed their famous treble. Hleb himself may have gained three extra medals, but his contribution was minimal. It is generally preferable not to have to resort to stats when evaluating a player’s performance, but with Hleb’s time at Barcelona, there is little to look at beyond them. Across the three competitions, he made just 19 starts, completing the full 90 minutes in just 10 of them. Only three of those full matches were in La Liga – namely, the final three, at which point the title had already been secured.
In the Champions League, his only starts (four) came in the group stages. He made three further substitute appearances in the competition: the longest one of which was 12 minutes; in the only one of the three games in which they needed an impact on the scoreline (the first leg of the semi final against Chelsea) he was given all of three minutes to do it. Despite featuring in every round, if not both legs, of the Copa del Rey, he was not trusted to start the final, instead coming on when they were already 4-1 up. Of the 36 games he did play (19 starts, 17 from the bench) he averaged just 47.3 minutes on the pitch.
It was no surprise that he was not playing his football at Barcelona the following season, although he was still contracted to them, as he left on loan back to VfB Stuttgart, the club he played for before Arsenal. He was as effective in his return to Germany as he had been in Spain, only without the protective shield of scant playing time. He struggled to return to his pre-Barcelona form and after head coach Markus Babbel was sacked and replaced by Christian Gross, whom Hleb claimed drove him out of the club, the writing was on the proverbial wall. He commented: “obviously my contract states that I may only play for 60 minutes. I have no idea what he expects from me, but I have a problem with him… The chances of me staying with Stuttgart are 0%”. The club themselves attempted to send him back earlier than the terms of his loan dictated. Only the most immovable of objects could halt the progress of the unstoppable force of Hleb’s plummeting career.
Nasri’s 09/10 started terribly, as he suffered a broken leg in pre-season. He returned in October but was still finding his way back into fitness and form for the next couple of months. He reclaimed his place in the side and while his inconsistency remained an issue, he was starting to influence games more and more. Some of his better and more influential performances came with Fàbregas out of the side, in stark contrast to the previous season: the sign of a growing independence and maturity about him on the pitch. His finest moment came with his sensational goal and all-round outstanding performance in the 5-0 victory over Porto which again came without his captain on the pitch.
The summer of 2010 was a big one for both. Nasri was omitted from France’s World Cup squad, despite some impressive performances towards the end of the season. Hleb remained unwanted at Barcelona and hence the natural step down was to Birmingham City, again on a season-long loan. His time at Birmingham can be summed up best in his own words, through his scathing digs at manager Alex McLeish. He was a deadline day signing that epitomised the panicked nature of such purchases; ill-fitting, unneeded and almost totally doomed to failure.
Nasri, by contrast, was truly taking on Hleb’s old mantle, finally excelling in his third season. For the first six months of the season, he was the standout best player in the division. Spurred on by his rejection at Domenech’s hand, he had seemingly eliminated the more frustrating elements of his game. He no longer held the ball for an excessive amount of time, nor disappeared from games for hour long periods as and when. The understanding Fàbregas and he had developed saw them prosper together and a stronger Nasri was now ready hold greater creative responsibility when the Spaniard was absent, with the plan long-term being that he would take over the primary creative role when the captain left that summer. They were able to now function strongly both together and independently of one another.
Nasri was conspicuously missing, even though he was habitually present, during the great collapse of 2011. When the going got tough, Nasri hid beneath the table. He went without a goal between the end of January to the end of April, by which time all semblance of whatever title challenge they held had crumbled. In this time he had been allowed to enter the final 18 months of his contract and speculation was rife concerning his future as, presumably, were talks with numerous clubs. Eventually, he moved to Manchester City £24million, and more than triple his previous wages.
A league title was won; progress was not made. If anything, it was the opposite for the Frenchman. As a footballer, he was still in the process of being sculpted by Arsène Wenger, who had used him on both wings, as a number 10 and even as a deep-lying playmaker, understanding that he still had elements of his trade that he needed to learn before he became the ‘finished article’. At City, there was no such nurturing. He was deployed near-solely on the wings and encouraged to play as a more traditional winger than the ‘inside forward’ role he held at Arsenal. He was misused and his old flaws have regrown since his move. According to City blogger @TypicalCity, Nasri “doesn’t apply himself [and] drifts in and out of games”. A familiar tale to any who watched him between 2008-2010. His career has gone backwards; so much so that many City fans jumped at rumours that Inter were set to bid for him. He is no longer trusted to play most games and finds himself confined to the bench more often than not. Alarmingly similar to the beginning of the end Hleb’s career.
Hleb left Barcelona for his third loan spell, coming into the final year of his contract, this time to Wolfsburg. In December, following one start and three substitute appearances, the deal was cancelled by the German side. Upon returning to Catalonia, he agreed to terminate his contract with the Spaniards, ending a tormenting three and a half years with the club. But the hell was not yet over. A move to low-flying Russian side Krylia Sovetov Samara and 8 appearances later, the season and his contract were finished. He returned to BATE Borisov, with whom he started his career.
The cycle was complete. And it was all so avoidable. He himself has acknowledged that he made career-fatal error in leaving Arsenal behind, just like Nicolas Anelka, Emmanuel Petit and Marc Overmars before him, and Adebayor and Nasri afterwards. The man who replaced Hleb for Arsenal looks though he will be following his path in more ways than their former manager had initially planned. Privately, Nasri asked Wenger to return to Arsenal last spring: he acknowledged his error earlier than his predecessor. With the likelihood of him being moved on this summer, all he can do is hope it is not too late.