There are two great philosophical debates that divide the football world; whether to play attractive football or to favour a more pragmatic approach and how to jude how good a player is. While the former is more or less answered by the league format biasing towards a “winning at all costs” mentality the latter is much more subjective. For example, I would rate Ronaldinho as the best player of the decade gone by because of his frequent spectacular performances and one-man showings but he only performed at his peak for four – albeit fantastic – years. Zinedine Zidane may be the widely held option as he did it more consistently however Ronaldinho thrived due to his unorthodoxy and for that reason, he will have stuck out more. Zidane, though, may be the purists choice because he brought great visceral joy in his balletic movements. Either way, judging and thus comparing talent is an ambiguous art.
Is it goals that you use to judge a player; the medals they won or their effectiveness in the international stage, a measure which straight-away puts those players born in an average nation at a disadvantage? What about taking individual attributes such as tackling and passing and assigning a score and weighting system to each one thus arriving a total at the end? Paul Ince used one for The Mirror’s pull out paper, Score, to settle the argument on who’s better; Steven Gerrard or Frank Lampard? Conveniently, Ince arrived at a tie. Of course, there can be no answer and rather, you use a number of factors to decide on the outcome although that method is unlikely to remain consistent. Put simply, it is an intuitive feeling that differs from person to person.
I ask this because there is one player at Arsenal for which this particularly applies to; Andrey Arshavin.
The Russian was brought to Arsenal in 2009 as a marquee signing; an antithesis to their youth development project and in that half a season that he arrived in, he single handedly qualified Arsenal for the Champions League. His 6 goals and 9 assists offered a tantalising vision of what he could bring when he finally acclimatises to the English league and most importantly, the “Arsenal way” if given a full season in the colours of red and white. However, by his own admission he has failed to live up to the hype, only delivering his explosive talents in sporadic moments. This season, he says confidence has dented his form although in recent matches, he is showing again that he can be an important player for Arsenal. Yet, this follows a brief period on the bench which coincided with Arsenal’s best spell of form from the middle of December to the end of February and it is likely that should Arsenal’s preferred eleven (Szczecny – Sagna, Koscielny, Djourou, Clichy – Song, Wilshere – Walcott, Fabregas, Nasri – van Persie) remain fit at once, an impact substitute would be his default role again.
Andrey Arshavin divides because he is a maverick; an individual who frustrates and delights at the same time. He is not one to fall into the collective endeavour, partly because he lacks the stamina to track back and partly because he just doesn’t believe he needs to. Arshavin speaks of the same vision of football he and Wenger have but the Frenchman has yet to convince the Russian of doing his bit defensively. At least, Arshavin realises the necessity of pressing up the pitch although by the time he closes down the first opponent, he effectively renders himself out of the defensive phase should they evade his presence.
Those Andrey Arshavin apologists point to his statistics as his main saving grace and it is true, they are very impressive. “If you look at the assists in the Premier League, Arshavin is the best,” said Wenger. This season in 43 games in all competitions, Arshavin has scored 10 goals and made 17 assists. However, are goals and assists enough to judge the success of the player? It should be, especially as the saying goes, “goals win games” and Arshavin has contributed to his fair share. But this time the statistics are against him. In his 21 starts in the league this term, Arsenal have won 52% of their matches and in the seven he doesn’t feature or arrives from the bench, The Gunners have won 75%. Of course, you can point to the sparse amount of matches without him which makes the latter statistic more impressive but there is a correlation here. Of Arsenal’s six matches between December and March (Chelsea, Birmingham City, Manchester City, West Ham United, Wigan Athletic and Stoke City) where they found their best form with their fantastic eleven, their win percentage is 83%. And in the three more league games in that period where the only changes made were enforced, the win percentage was still at an impressive 77%; a figure that is very close to the 75% win percentage without Arshavin. It is true, however, that the bulk of Arshavin’s matches were at the beginning of the season when the team was often impacted by injuries but perhaps it is significant that Arsenal soon found their fluency when Arshavin was not a regular in the team anymore.
Arshavin says his style has been “altered” and is now “more effective, but less sparkling” but is that just a way to cover up his waning talents and failure to adapt? Certainly that is the view in the Russian press following their recent 0-0 draw with Armenia with Sovetsky Sport columnist Yuri Tsybanev suggesting he is now being picked on reputation alone. Jonathan Wilson continues to note the scathing attacks directed at Arshavin by writing in the Guardian that former USSR defender Yevgeny Lovchev has said that “Arsène Wenger continues to make encouraging noises about Arshavin only to make sure his value doesn’t drop too much. Meanwhile the satirist Mikhail Grushevsky called Arshavin “a sacred cow” who must be replaced.”
It has become evident then, that Arshavin cannot rely on numbers alone to back up his case. It pains me to say it but the Russian has simply failed to integrate himself to the Arsenal style as well as he should have. His passing statistics are particularly poor; yes he is capable is sprinkling a bit of magic that can create a moment out of nothing while he has also delivered at key moments this season and last season that have gone unnoticed. But that may mean falling into the same trap; that direct is more better when, tactically Arsenal may be better off playing more shorter. His passing percentage is at a disappointingly low 70% and the rhetoric that his position encourages more killer passes look decidedly thin when comparing it to the 80% pass success of Arsenal’s best through-ball specialist, Cesc Fábregas. All this must take into account also that Arshavin plays in that all to selfish role of the wide forward and one that is heavily subsidised to cater for his vices. As Roberticus of Santapelota writes in his overview of Brazilian football “Where have all the wingers gone?“ the position is “undoubtedly the most selfish of roles in modern football. 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.” Indeed, how long can he be excused of not tracking back thus exposing poor Gael Clichy due to the possibility that he may create a goalscoring opportunity?
However, there is a charm about Andrey Arshavin that makes him irresistible at times. His plump cheeks and minimalist haircut indicates an innocence in his play; a player who is much in tune with his artistic freedom and takes infinite pleasure in the simple act of playing football. Watch his face before every goal and you will see his tongue reveal itself from his mouth in excitement. It was quite surprising to hear that the criticism of his form affected his confidence as much as it did because here was a player seemingly so free of fear and that was indicated by his style. Free spirited and ambitious, every touch on the ball gets you off your seat because there is an anticipation that he may produce something special. He more often than not does although with his unpredictability does also come frustration. Loose balls are aplenty with Arshavin, as is the frequent “stuck in the mud” routine whenever a pass goes beyond him. Perhaps we are being a bit harsh on Arshavin but there were signs this season that even the most ardent of fans were becoming disgruntled by his style.
How do you judge Andrey Arshavin’s worth to the team? Is it his numbers; his unpredictable brilliance or how involved he is in the team’s attacks? Because with Arshavin, it’s seems it’s a question which will forever remain unanswered.