To most people, Andrey Arshavin would have registered on their consciousness in the summer of 2008. He was boyish in his looks; his plum cheeks and fluffy hair were never going to hide his impish charm but it wasn’t before long he displayed all his cunning trickery. Suspended for the first two games of the European Championships with Russia – one of which included a 4-0 defeat to Spain – Arshavin made an instant impression. He was instrumental in seeing his side progress out of the group stages in the final game before producing a performance which made everyone stand up and notice. Arshavin was devastating in a 3-1 win over Holland, scoring a fantastic counter-attacking goal to see off the Dutch and was so effective every time he got the ball that ITV pundit Andy Townsend claimed it would be the best £20million a club could spend in the transfer window.
Some of Europe’s top clubs had been alerted to Arshavin’s genius before the tournament had started as Zenit St. Petersburg claimed the UEFA Cup, most impressively thrashing on their way, Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munchen. A move to a more establish club failed to materialise earlier, despite his obvious talents, as coaches were sceptical of his fitness levels, his attitude and perhaps most crucially his ability to fit into a team.
Arshavin was a maverick – the Morrissey to The Smiths; flamboyant but lacking the durability to perform in a collective endeavour. Arsenal took a relative gamble and Arshavin’s impact was immediate. His x goals and x assists single handedly qualified Arsenal for the Champions League of which included scoring all four goals in a 4-4 draw with Liverpool. Nowadays he cuts a more peripheral figure. His failure to match those heights in his first season (albeit only half a season) is made apparent by his wife, who jokingly commented – when Arshavin was asked of his best games of last season and his husband could muster two (Porto 5-0 and Liverpool 2-1) – “yeah Liverpool – in the last season!”
“My style has also altered – it is more effective, but less sparkling,” told Andrey Arshavin to Russian newspaper Sport-Express. “I don’t remember when was the last time I scored a really beautiful goal. It is frustrating. I tried to analyse this, but can find no answers.”
Former Manchester United and Everton winger Andrei Kanchelskis is more scathing of Arshavin in his analysis of his fellow Russian.“To start with, Arshavin seldom plays for 90 minutes and is usually substituted in the second half,” said Kanchelskis. “When he plays each match from start to finish, then we will see. In the first match [of the season] against Liverpool, you didn’t see him in the box. A week later Blackpool conceded six goals; Arshavin took a penalty and scored. But you need to understand the level of the opponent. And then Blackburn, who he scored the winning goal against, is far from a top club.
“In my opinion, Arshavin is overrated. He has been praised too much. He hasn’t shown brilliance for a very long time. The main thing is consistency, which Arshavin doesn’t have.”
Indeed if you were to deeply analyse Arshavin’s performances in those sacrosanct x games in the second half of 2008/09 season, one would likely come to the conclusion that the attacking midfielder was on the periphery of most matches. Even against Liverpool the game largely flew by him as Rafa Benitez’s side battered the Arsenal goal for ninety minutes; that until the ball fell to Arshavin four times. He was effective and still remains so and his supporters would say that’s how he should be judged.
Arshavin apologists would also say he is used in his unfavoured position of outside left. For Zenit, he played in an undefined role, drifting to and from the left touchline but mainly looking to link up with Pavel Pogrebnyak upfront. For Russia it was a more orthodox role behind the lone striker. Still an utilisation on the left of a three shouldn’t be restrictive as it offers Arshavin the opportunity to move on to his stronger foot while the flanks give him space to start. Indeed the trend in modern football is that of wingers on the opposite side of their preferred foot.
Russia and Zenit looked to build a system to cater to Andrey Arshavin’s strengths – and compromise for his weaknesses too. Arrigo Sacchi was scathing of the modern game’s pandering of the individual’s saying it was reactive football but there is no doubt that the past decade or so has been one of the most exciting and attacking. Seeing Arjen Robben given the freedom of the touchline for Bayern Munich last season, the wizardry of Ronaldinho or the Galactico’s – the side he reigned over as Director of Football for a brief stint – with Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo and Ronaldo proviced pure unadultared joy. The 2010 World Cup may have been titillation for Sacchi but the conservatism and the control coaches had made it a stale tournament.
There is one position that Sacchi would probably be most scornful of and that is the position Arshavin plays right now for Arsenal. There is no real term – “un wing” may sometimes be used in Argentina while there is a real hotbed of exponents in Brazilian domestic football. Think when Manchester City signed Robinho – or indeed AC Milan signing Robinho. Where was Mark Hughes to play a mercurial forward when he side was fully stocked up on strikers? The answer was to shunt him out to the left and allowing Robinho to get involved in central play by cutting onto his stronger foot and at the same time give him no real defensive responsibility. Roberticus of Santapelota feels it is “undoubtedly the most selfish of roles in modern football.” He writes, in his overview of Brazilian football “Where have all the wingers gone?“: “Selfish, I say, not as a character judgement, but rather in the sense that such a style of play carries with it so many potential rewards and comparatively little concomitant responsibility.” If, he says a team lacks play out wide you blame the winger(s). If the team fails to make enough decent scoring opportunities you blame the playmaker(s). The 9 and a half is granted greater “liberty of movement yet fails to get tagged with the artistic burden of the playmaker.”
Nevertheless not all players are granted such freedom and one would justifiably argue that Arshavin undertakes his fair share of defensive duties but what has become clear, is that such players have become very crucial in unlocking sides. “When forwards attack from wide to inside, they are far more dangerous,” says Sir Alex Ferguson. “When [Thierry] Henry played as a striker, and sometimes when Wayne [Rooney] does, they try to escape and create space by drifting from the centre to wide positions, when that actually makes them less dangerous.” David Villa may get less time centrally this season and instead will probably play a lot on the left where he has more time and space to run at defenders. Adam Johnson has been particularly good at this for Manchester City while while Mirko Vucinic is more menacing as a dynamic force from wide. Its role that should suit Arshavin perfectly, allowing to do what he does best, which in his own words, is to take on the defender one-on-one. “He knows how to dribble at defenders so that they can run with him but can’t attack him,” exclaims his former national boss Guus Hiddink. “Nature gave him that gift.”
Arsenal have been blessed with great attacking midfielders in the past and especially in Wenger’s reign, those creative wingers have set a high benchmark. The main argument against him will be that he is not involved as much in the Gunners approach play as Robert Pires, Fredrik Ljungberg or Marc Overmars were but there’s no denying his statistics, that when he is involved, are very impressive. Overall in 46 games, Arshavin has made 13 assists and scored 19 goals – and let’s not forget the number of goalscoring chances he creates. Most crucially perhaps as well, his club manager feels that effectiveness is very important to his Arsenal side.
“He is always marked very tight and people do not give him a lot of room,” said Arsene Wenger. “Everybody who plays against Arshavin says ‘make sure you mark him tight’. But even when he is marked tight in some of the so-called less big games, when you look at the tape afterwards, you always think ‘this movement was good’, or ‘this pass was great’. He always turns up with something special. He can be quiet for 20 minutes, and then suddenly turn up with something decisive. That is what you want from the big players – the big players make you win the big games.”
Self-consciously, it wasn’t very likely the purpose of Wenger to make Arshavin the mercurial threat that he is. Wenger allows every player a sense of their own freedom to produce the “audacity” as he says and in particularly with Arshavin, knows the key is to get him in dangerous areas as often as possible. The start of last season, displayed the possibilities of him drifting inside and linking with Robin van Persie and Cesc Fabregas although injuries quickly had their own say to partnership. In the past also, Arshavin had a team built around the need to get the ball to him quickly and mainly played on his own accord, and he was especially devastating on the break, highlighting the difficulties of translating that style to English football. Arshavin, however, shouldn’t be too disheartened by the failure to discover his mojo again. The statistics are with him and the fans and the manager know he is capable of cropping up with something special in any game.