To achieve feelings so strong as love or loathing requires something ‘other’ from a person, or in this case, a footballer. Hating or liking a player purely for being very good or bad, or because they play for a certain team is a waste of good energy: they need to do more to inspire such time-consuming emotions. There is plenty to admire about players like Ray Parlour, Darren Fletcher and Park Ji-Sung, whose standout asset is their incredible work rate, but there is so much more to love about a player like Andrey Arshavin.
As his departure from Arsenal was confirmed a couple of weeks ago, the old debate about whether he was a ‘flop’ or not re-arose. The claim is ridiculous and better answered in this, which is a more comprehensive coverage of the football-based things that happened. To suggest that anyone but Arshavin – and to a degree some unfortunate circumstances – were at fault for his demise is plain wrong – by his own admission, he preferred the left side in three-man forward lines. But that’s for another time.
“I believe my talent, my technique, is God-given and all I do is keep it going, rather than bury it in the ground. It is a natural talent. I knew I had it from the first day of training at the age of seven, because I found football easy”
Yet, Arshavin’s descent only adds to his charm. He’s a unique figure. ‘Lazy’ players exist everywhere, but there are few within that description who stand as high (no pun intended) as Arshavin did – whose idle nature actually improves them and whose talent is such that it is worth making a point of accommodating them. He still has everything: fantastic technique, dribbling and shooting with impressive acceleration and exceptional intelligence and vision.
He epitomises the belief that natural ability outweighs the need to put in work. The mentality that effort is the tool of the talentless is ultimately a flawed one to all but the very finest, but Arshavin was that. The belief belongs to the great idealists. He lives to prove that talent and enjoyment can win out above all else, despite his fall from grace.
A player like Arshavin can never ‘lose it’. In his own words, all he had was God-given. What he did lose was his motivation, not just to play for Arsenal but for the game as a whole, after Russia lost out on a place at the World Cup in 2009. It was not an immediate drop into poor form and insignificance, but he wasn’t the same. He seemed more subdued and reserved: sustained effort was never his forte but the occasional burst became more occasional. The ever-common misplaced passes were no longer chased up with as much rigour and willingness to reclaim the ball; the tracking back and defensive protection… remained as absent as ever.
Hindsight is playing its role here. At the time he was playing up front and the natural segue in thinking was that he was merely struggling somewhat in the role. But one only has to watch his speech from the bidding event for the 2018 World Cup to see the extent of his love for football and passion for the Russian cause. With that in mind, it can be of no surprise that he took the defeat as personally as he did. What would have been the pinnacle of his career was stolen from him by his teammates’ ineptitude and stupidity.
Quite aside from his heroic ability to ‘conserve his energy’, his style of play was always greatly endearing. It was said of Rivaldo that he could ‘get the ball 50 times in a game, do something wasteful and amateurish with 48 of them and then do something incredible with the other two’. In his earlier days, this was the perfect description of Arshavin. As the love for the job left, the moments of genius steadily diminished, but they never disappeared entirely. There were glimpses, to remind us all that he always had it, and that he could be the most dangerous player on the pitch when he deigned to lift a finger.
Arshavin tried different things. When others saw a simple pass, he saw a goalkeeper who had left his near post open. When a player running ahead of him called for the early ball he would often wait. And wait. Then release the ball a few seconds later, creating a much easier chance. With two players blocking his path he would still attempt the early cross. He wasn’t always successful, but often was. He was unpredictable; he had the talent to be. The enjoyment he took from his way of playing only furthered the unconventional nature of his style.
One of my favourite summaries of Arshavin came from the excellent @arsereview:
“So many people dream of being professional footballers. He’s done it, while being overweight & tiny. And is one of the top players in Europe. And he could be better but doesn’t care.”
He developed a style that enabled his physique, his lack of fitness and his sloth, while still allowing him a to magnificent player. Maybe he would’ve been better if he had really applied himself, but why bother? He was already better than the rest without trying. In his time at Arsenal the only player better in the side was Cesc Fàbregas, who combines even greater natural talent with exceptional hard work. In the league as a whole, the only ones who topped his level were those for whom workrate is a standout feature of their game. Arshavin was amongst them with barely a fraction of it.
He drifted in and out of games. He didn’t help defensively. He could be infuriating, so often losing the ball and misplacing his passes. But that was his way. His inefficiencies somehow made him more effective. He could have been a diligent tracker, but why take away from his unique genius going forward? Why keep the ball with the simple pass instead of trying to create something with a riskier forward one? Why stay at the centre of every single move when the fear he created, combined with the intelligence of his movement gave the rest of his team room to be better? A team of Arshavins would never amount to anything, but a team with Arshavin in it could achieve all it wished.
Here the lament that we only saw the truest form of him for two halves of separate years sits strongest and cuts deepest. He propelled us to the top four in his first half-season, and was a huge part of our being so close to the top in April of the 09/10 season. His injury, combined with Fàbregas’ and those to Thomas Vermaelen and William Gallas stubbed out the embers of what was actually quite a strong title challenge.
Arshavin’s time at Arsenal will always be a story of ‘what could have been’, but the time that was and the memories that will last are gold. His genius was not just that he was great on minimal effort, it was that he could make other players better. When he ‘disappeared’ in games, it’s no coincidence that the others shone. And he made many significant contributions in big games. Even when without the same motivation he excelled, if less so, before being usurped due to Theo Walcott and Samir Nasri’s respective good form spells in 10/11, which dramatically sped up his decline. Never given the time to play his way back into form, his forward contribution no longer negated his defensive disinterest.
The disregard of the brilliance of his start on account of the miserable end is overly disingenuous to a wonderful player. His service was less than it could and should have been, but it was great while it lasted. We’re all left to wonder how things might have been different were it not for that loss in Maribor, but the memories of the most casual of all the geniuses will outlive the rue. In my eyes, at least.
And as a gift, here are some of my favourite pictures of Arshavin in gallery form, stolen from various corners of the internet. There are plenty more still to be found.