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Friday, 29 June 2012

From Russia With Little Love Lost

"I am quite good... HONESTLY."

We welcome back Dan Forman (follow him ) as he explains how, once upon a time, Andrei Arshavin could have been 'the one'. 

The first time you see them some players you just notice straight away and think wow, they can really, well, for want of a better word, play. The first time I saw Andrei Arshavin was one such experience.

It was at Wembley in September 2007 in a short-lived period when things finally, remarkably, seemed to be going quite well for Steve McClaren's England team. England ran out 3-0 winners and put their qualification campaign for Euro 2008 briefly back on track and Emile Heskey's stock as an international striker back from unpalatable to unplayable (these were strange days indeed).

But for the first section of that game, England were played off the park. And at the heart of that was Arshavin. There was something about his touch, awareness of space and slide-rule passing that was impossible not to enjoy or at least appreciate. In stature, he was also the anti-Emile, with the physical presence of a 12-year-old that made him all the more likeable. Had Russia been blessed with a Heskey of their own up front that day, they could easily have been 3-0 up themselves in 15 minutes, such was the supply coming through from Arshavin. And who knows how different history would have been then, perhaps Russia would have gone on to light up the Euros as the most exciting team in the tournament and England crash out to Croatia in the qualifying rounds having had their technical limitations shown up.

There is, as I believe the young people say these days, a heavy irony claxon sounding throughout the latter part of the above paragraph. But the bit about Arshavin is true. He was a joy to watch for the opening quarter of that game and seemed to play with an ease and elegance that comes naturally to only a gifted few. But then England got a goal, got back into it and Russia lost a bit of spirit and drive. With their dominance went their confidence and, not for the first time on a football pitch in north London, none more so than Arshavin.

Before his ultimately unhappy experience at Arsenal though, there was his run to the Uefa Cup Final with Zenit St Petersburg which, having seem him at Wembley in the autumn, I followed with interest. And if he was the main man for Russia he was clearly master of all he surveyed at Zenit – the prince of St Petersburg – with a team built around him and designed to protect and maximise his talent. But what talent it is/was/could have been.

If that season hadn't already put him on a path to potential greatness, the Euro 2008 finals certainly did. In Arshavin's case, we are only really talking about two matches here as he was suspended for the first two and Russia froze (albeit against a Spain side on the way to true greatness) in the semi-final. But what a pair of matches it was. And if he was a joy to watch in those games then it looked it like he was loving it at least as much, playing with an impish smile that became less and less and familiar in the years to come.

In the dying hours of the January 2009 transfer window (technically, in fact ,they were dead as the window had closed but Arsenal exploited some kind of loophole to get the deal backdated and bring the hours back to life) he completed a by now long-touted and on, off and on again move from Zenit to Arsenal. It looked like a classic Arsene Wenger transfer coup and excitement was high* as it seemed like the perfect place for the next stage of his career, at a club that doesn't just tolerate, but actively encourages small, technical number 10s.

And it did start well. On his debut at home to Sunderland - after the fans got over the initial shock that he really is that short - he made an immediate impact. The first touch was there for all to see and his movement dangerous. Then there was the extraordinary performance at Anfield when he only seemed to touch the ball four times, but each one was a rocket blast into the top or bottom corner.

But it was also evident that he wasn't very fit and word emerged that he was struggling to be brought up to standard. Rumours also spread that he was unhappy with his contract as, in the last minute rush, he hadn't realised that the headline figures would be subject to UK tax, a story that seemed to fit with his charmingly naive character.

Positionally, he was also in a bind. He was so obviously best-suited to playing as a traditional number 10, but in a 4-2-3-1, he wasn't willing or able to work hard enough as a midfielder in the middle of the three and so only ever played on the left of it (other than a brief, injury-crisis induced period as the one in a 4-5-1). Maybe it was homesickness or the lack of central role, but his confidence clearly dropped and his golden touch deserted him. Watching him, especially knowing what he was capable of, became more of a frustration than a joy each year. His pub-player puffing and wheezing went from endearing to appearing like a lack of effort.

There were high points (a run along the line and shot from a ridiculous angle against Blackburn; his goal against Barcelona in 2011 after an atypical lung-busting run; a sublime pass for Thierry Henry this year that showed that even in the darkest days he could still do occasionally what some never will), but they were nowhere near enough. Some of us still held a candle for him, but in the eyes of most Arsenal fans he became a symbol of our over-elaborate, complacent and over-paid players and the subject of wrath.

The writing was really on the wall with the arrival of the far less talented, but harder-working and more direct Gervinho last summer, but it took until February (again, bizarrely, after the British transfer window had closed) for Wenger to finally cut his losses and loan him back to Zenit. And judging by recent evidence, it appears to have been time well spent. Reports from St Petersburg were already very positive, but it was still almost as much of a revelation to see him roll back the years for Russia as it was to see him for the first time.

It was all still there, the touch, the vision, the dropping into space - and the smile. He was even popping perfect crosses and free kicks onto the head of attackers (not a skill that is ever encouraged at Arsenal, it seems). But now that we knew him a bit better, other telltale signs were evident too. He ran out of puff after not much more than an hour and, while he revelled in a key role in a team pouring forward, when the chips were down against Greece, he failed to rouse himself, let alone his team, and retreated into a shell. The tournament turned out to be his career in microcosm: all glorious promise yet ultimate lack of delivery.

Not even his most ardent supporters will be fooled and nor will Arsene Wenger. He's not coming back to north London. But for another two games at a Euros finals, we could at least be reminded of what made us fall for him in the first place and imagine what might have been.

*In fact, I have a theory about Wenger transfers that there is an inverse relationship between their success and the amount of excitement generated at the time  - itself usually generated by the money he spends on them. None of his really big money moves - Arshavin, Reyes, Nasri, Wiltord, Jeffers, van Bronckhorst etc - have had a great impact and often incurred big losses, whereas several cut price deals have either cemented a place in club history or brought in huge profit: Vieira, Campbell and Van Persie being in the former category, Anelka and Adebayor in the latter and Petit, Toure, Fabregas and Overmars perhaps in both. Thierry Henry may be an exception to this rule as a fairly expensive player who delivered but he was a bargain at any price and, actually, excitement wasn't as great as you might expect, having disappointed at Juventus and at the World Cup in 1998, and being seen as a slightly substandard replacement for Overmars on the wing rather than a record goalscorer in the making up front. Anyway, I sometimes wonder if this relationship is one of the reasons Wenger can be reluctant to spend.

1 comment:

  1. I think Arsene helped Arshavin to become a better player. He learned how to grip the ball when surrounded by 2 or more defenders at Arsenal so he should be thankful to them.