On the first day of Euro 2012…non-goalscoring number nines and Arshavin

1.Who says number nines have to score?

When Aleksandr Kerzhakov screwed a shot wide on 70 minutes, it confirmed to everyone what they already knew; that he was going to be replaced. With the effort, he carried the unwanted – and previously unknown – distinction of being the first player in Euro history since records began, to attempt the most shots without hitting the target. But that shouldn’t mask what other good he did for the team. Granted, when Roman Pavlyuchenko entered the pitch in his place, he went more than one better, creating and scoring the two goals to make it a rout. But before that, Kerzhakov continually dragged the Czech defence and his tireless movement helped create space for the midfielders to run into.

I predicted before the tournament that the highest goalscorer will be a player who doesn’t conventionally operate as a number 9 before unwisely, at least, judging by this showing, go for Kerzhakov. But how much of Kerzhakov’s role consists of playing as a traditional number 9? Because it’s expected goals in Dirk Advocaat’s system come from all over – and certainly they broke with speed in midfield to support Kerzhakov – with Alan Dzagoev getting two, the second of which was created by Pavlyuchenko. Roman Shirokov got the other as a pass from Arshavin eluded Kerzhakov and trickled it’s way to him. In the other group game, Greece’s goal – after going down to ten men – was always planned to come from Dimitris Salpingidis as coach Fernando Santos, had him darting off from the right-flank at every opportunity. He also created the penalty with a similar move. In this case, the centre-forward’s role was mainly limited to a decoy for his runs. To try not to sound like apologising for Kerzhakov too much, he should have scored and his profligacy might have ultimately cost Russia at 2-1. But one might come to accept that centre-forwards don’t always have to score – if others do.

2.Warning: massive Arshavin apology

Russia’s 4-1 win over Czech Republic was exhilarating, exhibiting the kind of exuberance they showed in 2008 when they finally captured – after nearly two decades of obscurity – their total footballing heritage. They passed the ball quickly, poured forward in numbers and punished the Czechs when it mattered. Andrey Arshavin was superb, directing counter-attacks with sharpness. For his apologist, the win was a massive advert of what Arsenal did wrong. Except we can’t possibly excuse three years in which his numbers (except passing accuracy) were on the back of a match. Indeed, if he can play so well for Russia, what is it that makes it different at Arsenal?

For one, Arshavin relishes playing for his country; the responsibility of captaincy paradoxically liberating him. The other is the level of freedom he gets for Russia that he can’t possibly at Arsenal. Because for the national side, he’s the one player that’s capable of moments of spontaneity – and that kind of responsibility would be too much of Dzagoev – but for Arsenal, he is offered a degree of freedom but how much more can Wenger subsidise his role?

More appropriately, it’s that extra space he’s offered at international or Russian domestic level which he thrives on, particularly on the break. Perhaps, giving him a central role might have allowed him to do that at Arsenal, but patently, Wenger doesn’t see him as a playmaker. The Czech were naive to offer him that room – but they did so, because they thought they could go toe-to-toe with the Russians. In the Premier League, most teams approach Arsenal in an overly cautious manner thus 60+% of the game is played in their half. As such, it must be said Arshavin, simply hasn’t been able adjust to the lack of space in an Arsenal shirt. Indeed, Czech Republic realised their 4-1-4-1 was giving too much room on the break for him and a result, in the second-half, put on another holding midfielder, Thomas Hubschmann, to try and shore things up before the floodgates eventually opened again.

It was the partnership with Dzagoev, though, which caught the eye, interchanging freely with him in a way that Arshavin might not be afforded at Arsenal with Theo Walcott. The Gunners tried to do that more last season but not in real time and rather, at designated phases of the match. For Russia, they both figured wide in 4-3-3 initially but were tasked with roaming inside, at times resembling a Christmas Tree shape.

In turn, Arshavin thrilled and dazzled for Russia in a way all too familiar yet too far for the Gunners.

3.Poland’s Arsenal conundrum

Poland, hosting their first major sporting event, produced an atmosphere that was spine-tingling as it was inspiring. And as expected, their national team responded, using the nervous and excited energy to make an exhilarating start. They were relentless in the first-period, as they poured forward with pace and never allowed Greece to settle as they wanted to. However, in the second-half, they just couldn’t come out in the same fashion. Because once the novelty of hosting the first game set in, they looked ordinary and were soon pegged back through an equaliser and then a red card for Wojciech Szczesny.

In a sense, Poland’s second-half echoed the end of Arsenal’s season and the consequent conundrum they face for the next. Because The Gunners ended 2011/12 playing at a dizzyingly high-tempo that they can’t possibly retain for next season. Or if they do, they must do it in a more intelligent manner. Because from February,Arsenal managed to save their season by using the momentum in the race for third to devastating effect, approaching games with an intent that opponents couldn’t match. But they almost always let up in the second-half as that intensity is difficult to maintain. And as such, Wenger will be planning the next season with a hint of the unknown: does his team need to be unshackled and be forced into taking creative risks to play at it’s best? And considering how difficult that is to sustain as shown by the second-half of the campaign, it’s not a reasonable request to expect them to play like this all the time.

For Poland, the objective is more short-term. Because once the game settled, they showed their limitation and when asked to create, offered little in terms of cohesion apart from a selection of players. Łukasz Piszczek gave them a different dimension from right-back, Robert Lewandoski battled and bullied opposing defenders while Ludovic Obraniak only dazzled in glimpses. Host nations have always been empowered by their home crowd and it looks like Poland will need every one of their inhabitants to roar them on.

Arsenal player watch

Wojciech Szczęsny (2/10): The goalkeeper was relatively untested before Greece’s equaliser which he might have felt he should have done better. And his day – and possibly his tournament – came to a premature end when he was red-carded. Szczęsny has come far in a short space of time with not only his talent but his personality and he’s need every bit of that if he is to retain is his place once his suspension elapses.

Tomáš Rosický (5/10): Rosický showed neat the touches and turns that we have come to expect from him but was unable to deliver the telling passes to inspire his country. It was another long-haired schemer that impressed, however, for the Czech’s as Petr Jiráček outshone his captain.

Andrey Arshavin (7/10): The Russian captain seems to thrive playing for his country and he delivered once again, tormenting the Czech Republic defence and instigating breaks with pinpoint vision.

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