After Samir Nasri had waltzed through the Fulham defence – twice – to score two goals for Arsenal in their 2-1 win in December, The Guardian ran the rather flattering headline, “Samir Nasri evokes memories of Best.” Now, some would question the wisdom of a comparison between one of the greatest players in a generation and one who’s career is just fledgling but footballers should be allowed comparisons. The initial feeling of awe and overriding ecstasy can be so large that it induces such sentiments and superlatives and besides, comments like that are never meant to be taken at face value. However, watching it again and you can see why the goals at, descriptive level at least, evoke memories of the great player. Nasri tip-toed past his opposition defenders with much impudence and ease that it was reminiscent of the swagger of Best at a similar age. And on a destructive level, when was the last time a player was able to conjure up the same level mastery and skill to see off the opposition? Perhaps it hasn’t been so prevalent in the Premier League era but there are similarities between Nasri’s goals against Fulham andGeorge Best’s in the 1968 European Cup Final against Benfica.
Samir Nasri’s immediate comparisons are with Zinedine Zidane but Arsène Wenger is quick to play down the playing styles between the two. “The flexibility of his hips is similar to Zidane but Zidane was a different player,” he said. “Zidane was more a guy who creates openings through his skill, Nasri is more direct. Cesc Fabregas is a passer of the ball, Nasri is a guy who is more half-winger; a wing midfielder. He has his own style but he is quick and tricky and very flexible.”
To look at Nasri, you wouldn’t necessarily attribute him to the elegance and athleticism Wenger speaks about. His smile is slightly buck-toothed but that only adds to his boyish handsomeness. His play, splayed with trickery, cunning and a deceptive turn of pace indicates the intrepidity of a leader of a boy’s gang, harking back to the football he played on the streets of Marseilles. He has bulked up a bit also, he has a Bart Simpson belly almost, and has shown he has the determination and maturity to fight for his team, as displayed by the matches giving him the captain’s armband.
Nasri’s performances this season have been scintillating and has backed up Wenger’s faith in his players’ capability of delivering at the age of 23-24 years old. The loyalty and belongingness he feels for the club is part of what the youth policy aims to instil and Nasri wants to stay for longer. “Samir is happy at the club, the coach believes in him, the directors believe in him as well,” told his agent, Jean-Pierre Barnes to the Daily Express. “He said to me, ‘You won’t believe the great atmosphere in the changing room, I’ve rarely experienced anything like this.’”
The rise has been almost inexorable but whereas last season, he was sometimes criticised for not being assertive enough on the ball, this season he has added a ruthlessness and dynamism to his game which has been crucial to Arsenal’s challenge. Playing on the right side at the beginning of the campaign but recently moving to the left with a smattering of matches in the middle, Nasri has scored 14 goals in 28 matches and has been tipped, like one former Arsenal midfielder, to bag the individual player prizes at the end of the season. There looked no stopping him, that is, until a hamstring injury on 33 minutes of the 2-1 win over Huddersfield struck. The Frenchman is set to be out for three weeks and because of his importance to the team’s dynamics, Arsène Wenger will have to try and recreate his style in his absence.
One of Samir Nasri’s main assets is his versatility. Whether on the right or left side of the front three this season, he almost acts as a balancer to Arsenal’s lop-sidedness in the 4-3-3. With a forward on the other side – earlier this season it was Andrey Arshavin, recently it has been Theo Walcott – his ability to mix up his game gives Arsenal a variety and an unpredictability. He has the temerity to take on his opponents and create chances but a criticism of Arsenal has been they are too elaborate at times, so his ability to get behind has been very effective for The Gunners. Against Tottenham, he bamboozled Benoit Assou-Ekoto by making a diagonal run centrally to open the scoring and did that all day against Fulham, so much so that the starting left-back, Matthew Briggs, had to be taken off midway through the first-half. “Like every player that is good on the ball he was too much attracted by the ball,” said Wenger when analysing Nasri’s impact. “We wanted him to do more runs off the ball, going in behind [the defence] without the ball because we have many players who can give him the ball.”
But perhaps most impressively is the understanding and link-up he has struck up with Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie in recent matches. The triumvirate’s mixture of technical excellency, intelligence and dynamism makes for a potent partnership and the interchange between the three cannot be rivalled in the Premier League. With all of them on the pitch, responsibility can be shared; losing one of them and it places more demands on other two to create. Against Everton, Wenger attempted to try the slightly out of form Tomas Rosicky on the left (although much of it down to a lack of minutes) due to his combination of creativity and guile. However, partly down to Everton’s marking game, dropping their two wingers back to double up on Arsenal’s wide men, Rosicky was unable to influence. As it was, Andrey Arshavin, who was similarly out of form, was introduced and his directness, brought Arsenal back into the match.
But therein lies Wenger’s conundrum; if he starts with Arshavin, Arsenal will have a speed about their game and the ability to get the ball forward quickly but due to his individualism, will lose protection out wide. Nasri and Walcott have done well to cover the spaces on the flanks, thereby alleviating some of the inefficiencies the side had earlier in the season and have allowed the team to press better. With Rosicky, you will get the latter because of his abilities as a half-winger but may lack a bit of penetration and sharpness to balance the system. With a crucial month in February that may decide Arsenal’s season, it’s a dilemma Wenger and Arsenal will need to address.