In Andrey Arshavin, Arsenal have signed a player capable of moments of pure magic but it is his attitude and commitment rather than his ability that had denied him a bigger move earlier in his career.
“Arshavin is a footballer who can make something out of nothing,” says Russia coach Gus Hiddink. If proof needed to be of his ability, Euro 2008 had finally elevated Arshavin to the footballing public eye. For many it was the first they had seen of the playmaker, as he was the architect of two brilliant wins over Sweden and Netherlands. His balance, vision, awareness and the ability to seemingly glide past opponents made him some people’s player of the tournament after just three games.
The tournament had added an extra £10 million to his valuation whereas it was widely accepted he could have been signed for the minimum of fuss a season or so before. The non-appearance in a major competition kept him beneath the radar as Russia failed to qualify for Euro 2004 and the 2006 World Cup. However it was not the failure to display his talents in such competitions that denied him of a move earlier in his career, it was his questionable level of fitness and temperament.
The semi-final against Spain had seen him marked out of the game by Marcos Senna and was subsequently moved to the left but there he also failed to make an impact. It wasn’t the fact that his threat was so easily nullified by Senna it was his lack of desire or effort to make something happen. The question of a lack stamina or laziness has been asked of him since he made his breakthrough at 19, usually seen trudging back slowly to the halfway line and not making enough effort to cover for his defenders. “Arshavin is a fine player, but is he mature enough to play in the strongest leagues?,” asked Jose Mourinho.”At Euro08 he showed a lot of inspiration against Sweden and Holland. But he looked like he was absolutely switched off in the next match against Spain.” It is an area of weakness that one would not have been able to identify from a couple of Youtube videos that so many have used to decipher an opinion from.
Even his eventual suitor Arsene Wenger also raised reservations about signing Arshavin. “That Arshavin is a top-level talent is beyond doubt. The only issue is related to the fact that the leading leagues in the world mean you must be at the highest level of physical readiness throughout the season. Can he show his full potential every three days that happens every season the same in England and Spain?” However, Wenger was playing a shrewd game; he went to the Championships talking about Benzema, Modric and Gomes as potential stars but this was as a smokescreen to look at the Russian playmaker, Gokhan Inler and Senna. Yes, Wenger was concerned that Arshavin was marked out of the game but a player who could change the game so quickly and decisively is a great talent.
Yet Arshavin so nearly threw Russia’s chances into doubt as before the tournament he had got himself suspended for kicking an Andorran player in a friendly match. His temperament is said to have been one of the reasons he had failed to mature and develop quicker.
In 2006 Zenit manager Dick Advocaat dropped Arshavin to the bench as he and two other Zenit players went clubbing the night before an important game with FC Spartak. The moment is said to have affected Arshavin is he was unhappy with the decision and as a result his football suffered. He got back to form in 2007 and as an ever present helped guide Zenit to their first Russian Premier League title since 1984.
His questionable attitude looked to raise it’s ugly head this summer as he looked to manufacture his way out of Zenit, preferably to Barcelona. “A professional cannot lack the desire to play when he walks on to the field,” he said. “I try and play for Zenit the best I can. But I repeatedly told the president of the club that I didn’t want to remain in the side any longer. If they don’t let me leave, I’ll be listed as a Zenit player, but on paper only.”
In fact he loved Barcelona so much, friends recall how as a teenager he would spend hours playing Football Manager, starting out as a manager of a fourth-division English club and as all fairytale endings, finish as manager of the Spanish Giants.
But this is what makes Arshavin, Arshavin. He exudes self-confidence, maybe bordering on arrogance. He is not scared to be different and more importantly, himself. While at university he wrote a thesis on sportswear production in an institute devoted to sewing, but dismissed his decision to study for a diploma in fashion design as an opportunity to meet girls.
He is undoubtedly a special player, one of the most effective in the world along with Messi and Robben when he has the ball. His work-rate needs improving but behind him he will probably have Sagna or Clichy which will give him the freedom to wreak havoc. Like Messi in front of Dani Alves the potential is massive. Able to attack inside and outside, he is a player Arsenal have sorely missed this season and the fact he is cup-tied in the Champions League means he may not have to play two games a week just yet. Asked what position he would play at Arsenal he answered that he ‘will think about attacking’. And boy, does he.