Eduardo Da Silva’s Arsenal career is a constant reminder of a time I generally refuse to talk about, even 5 years after it happened. As much as it would be nice to remember his short time here for other things, it will always be overshadowed by the leg break at Martin Taylor’s hand. It began the unravelling of a phenomenal young side’s title ambitions and had huge ramafications on Eduardo’s own career.
He actually had some small marks on English football, and specifically Arsenal, before he had even signed: he became the first player to score a European goal at the new Emirates Stadium, when Dinamo Zagreb took the lead in their Champions League qualifying round. Later in that year he scored the first goal, a header, in England’s 2-0 loss to Croatia in 2006 (a game more famous for Paul Robinson’s hilarious mis-kick).
Players like Eduardo have grown steadily less and less popular since around the time of his return from the injury. He was and is a sensational finisher of any fathomable type of goal within 20 yards of the net; he isn’t particularly tall but is excellent in the air, while wonderfully calm and assured in front of goal, usually on his favoured left foot. He could never really hold the ball up and his lacking back to goal work was his true downfall at Arsenal, but his height belies his strength and enables his agility.
He is more than a classic poacher, but not much more. His assists record has always been fairly good, but his business lay in goals. It was fantastic for a time, but following February 23rd 2008, it has hit a low. He became football’s answer to Nas: the brilliance of the first album was concealed behind too much inconsistency and mediocrity for him to remain at the top. Embers of the mastery flickered on, but always tainted by dreams of what should have been.
The worst part of the timing of the leg break was that it came just as he was hitting league form. He had waited until December to get his first goals in the league, but he had been fairly prolific in the cups, sealing 3-0 wins against Sparta Prague (his first goal) and Sevilla, then adding League Cup doubles against Sheffield United and Blackburn, as well as an FA Cup strike away at Burnley. He was mainly confined to playing in the cups until late November, when Robin van Persie’s inevitable pre-2010-minimum-four-month-with-added-recovery-time-to-follow injury happened, giving him more league playing time.
A double against Everton and goals against West Ham and Manchester City, all beautifully composed left-footed finishes, left him with an encouraging 12 goals as March approached. 5 points clear on top of the league, only having lost one and drawn five all season, the trip to St. Andrews had seemed routine.
There’s little to be said about the incident that hasn’t already been said over the 5 years. Personally, I liked Arsène Wenger’s initial view on it all, which he later retracted. But of course, Taylor isn’t the kind of player to go flying into good, old-fashioned ‘reducers’ three minutes into games on the halfway line on a player who was causing no great threat. No, Sir, not he.
He had hoped to return before Christmas 2008 but had to settle for February. The rescheduled FA Cup 3rd round replay vs Cardiff would see him get a surprise start. 20 minutes in, he got the goal – a well-placed header from a Carlos Vela cross. It ended up being another cup brace, as he added a second from a penalty, before going off with a hamstring injury. This would become an odd precedent for the rest of his Arsenal career: providing a reminder of his brilliant finishing ability before spending three weeks out. He wouldn’t make his league return until the opening day of the 09/10 season, in the 6-1 trouncing of Everton. He added the sixth, a tap-in, thanks to some clever movement.
Between them he scored his best goal of his Arsenal career, against Burnley in the FA Cup. It was his second game since returning and before the match, Arsène Wenger had awarded him with the captaincy as “a tribute to his personality”. He returned the favour with a both unique and barely-explicable goal. The first in Alex Song’s Pantheon of Chipped Through Balls (the few that came off) left Eduardo near-free in the 18-yard box. Rather than bring the ball down or even attempt to side-foot it, he volleyed it perfectly into the opposite top corner with the outside of his left foot. That decision and the finish still make no sense, yet they led to him scoring one of the best goals of the Wenger era.
The season that followed was more sad than anything else. Arsenal had switched to 4-3-3, and his inability to play as a lone striker in such a system meant he was shunted to the wings, for which he was neither fast nor creative enough. He struggled for fitness, and his confidence took an understandable hit. He was unrecognisable in front of goal from his 2008 self. The most notable incident of his final season at Arsenal was the overblown controversy surrounding his dive in the Champions League qualifier against Celtic. He went over under minimal contact in the area and won a penalty this one time. There really was very little to it.
He left for Shakhtar Donetsk in the summer of 2010. It was one of the sadder partings in recent Arsenal times. Eduardo himself may justifiably have felt that he was never really given the chances he needed, in a role to which he was better-suited, following the break. Arsenal were committed to the new system; Eduardo’s time was done.
Arsenal and Shakhtar were drawn together in the 2010/11 Champions League group stage, and just as he had scored his side’s consolation goal against Arsenal before joining, he did the same afterwards. The Arsenal fans cheered as if they had added a sixth, rather than conceded their first. Eduardo ambled back to the centre circle without celebrating, but a visible hint of a tear in his eye. The feeling was shared across the stadium.
Eduardo was and still is loved by many Arsenal fans, but it can be best summed up by saying that the rue lies with the fact that he had to leave, rather than the fact he did. In the words of Belle and Sebastian: It Could Have Been a Brilliant Career.
Around this time a year or so ago, two things were commonly accepted among many Arsenal supporters: Bacary Sagna was way past his best, and he would be leaving in the summer. For a healthy proportion, the latter line of thinking strengthened the widespread acceptance of the former. It was sad that his exceptional – yet nowhere near as illustrious as deserving – Arsenal career was drawing to an end like this; so meekly, brought about by injury and with no trophy to show for his understated brilliance, but it appeared to be the only possible outcome.
The great ‘change’ in Arsenal’s 12/13 campaign is mostly acknowledged as having come in the 2-0 away win against Bayern Munich, but for Sagna himself it had come a few weeks prior. As Arsenal made their way to Sunderland, Thomas Vermaelen had been ruled out injured, while Laurent Koscielny and Ignasi Miquel made the trip despite being major doubts. The grim expectations were realised when Koscielny pulled out in the warmup, and Miquel was not fit enough to start. Sagna was shifted to centre back, with Carl Jenkinson drafted in to cover at right back.
Alongside Per Mertesacker, Sagna was sublime. And after Jenkinson’s red card, they had needed to be. It was the start of Sagna’s up-turn. Despite picking up an injury and missing the following few weeks (including Bayern away), he looked like himself once more upon returning. The injury rest had been his first time out since returning from the second leg break in October 2012. His remarkably swift recovery and instant return to form after the first break made it easy to forget the magnitude of the injuries. The second time around he was again thrown straight back in, this time against QPR (in October), without even a game with the reserves beforehand. It is testament to Sagna, that he was expected to have few, if any, re-teething issues.
As it happened, he (quite understandably) had some problems. The major difference in the side after the match at the Allianz Arena was, of course, the partnership of Aaron Ramsey and Mikel Arteta in central midfield. It was first pointed out to me by the excellent @RasDamAFC that almost all of Sagna’s poorer performances in 12/13 came with Arteta being partnered with Jack Wilshere. Wilshere’s high positioning meant Arteta had to sit further in-field which removed or affected Sagna’s easiest passing option and left him more open to being attacked. Theo Walcott’s lack of protection did nothing to help, either.
His only poor games since have been against Manchester United and Aston Villa at home. In the former, Ramsey was often higher up the pitch as he was tasked with pressing Michael Carrick, while against Villa, the midfield pairing was Ramsey and Wilshere, which is a defensive disaster zone. Otherwise, he has been consistent, reliable and wonderfully committed at every turn – just as ever he was.
He is not quite as athletic or fast as he was before his injuries, meaning he commits somewhat less going forward, but he remains a superb defender and outstanding right back, and his performances at centre back have most encouraging. That being said, his being used as both is a source for worry, if defensive injuries get in any way out of hand. But at the same time, the only position in which ‘super quality’ is more difficult to find than centre back is full back. Sagna is a rarity among those in his position. Most full backs are attackers who were moved back in their late teens or early 20s after being not good enough to make it further forward. For the majority within that, defending is an afterthought.
Héctor Bellerín differs from that basic outline in one very significant way: he was moved to right back at 16. He has been conditioned to think about defending from a far younger age than most in his situation and, by all accounts, it is showing in his progress. The most stylistically similar ‘full back’ to him at the moment is Jordi Alba, who is great to watch going forward because he is still a winger by mindset. He is defensively suspect because he is still a winger by mindset. He was only moved back at 20-21 and only became a full time left back when he was signed by Barcelona. Bellerín’s extra years as a defender are having the expected effect, while he still attacks like a traditional winger. He is in the process of becoming a very, very good right back.
But it remains a process, and it is currently in its infancy. Bellerín is 18 and has all of 10 minutes of professional game time to his name. And they came in central midfield. If he is seen as the heir to Sagna’s throne, it is at least two years away from coming to fruition. And however much he has improved, Jenkinson is only marginally readier than Bellerín is. Having Sagna and Jenkinson as the right back options make sense, just as having Sagna and Bellerín would; Jenkinson and Bellerín as the only two right backs – as early as next season – in a team that hopes to contend for the league and the Champions League would be insanity.
There has been talk about signing another right back, but as alluded to earlier, good right backs are extremely difficult to find. Sime Vrsaljko and Martín Montoya are two names that have been mentioned but they are 21 and 22 respectively and, just like pretty much every other attainable right back, they are inferior to Sagna. He is the ideal mentor to Jenkinson and Bellerín and will not stand in the way of either’s development. Sagna deserves a two year extension; Arsenal would be out of their minds not to give him one.