If there is ever any evidence as to how far out of the spotlight, mind-set and general interest Russian football is, it took Andrey Arshavin his 27th birthday and Euro 2008 to really garner any attention beyond his domestic borders. It doesn’t really require much description to evoke memories of how the Russian lit up the international tournament that summer, offering so much despite only making an appearance in the third group game following suspension.
Arshavin was everything the modern football deity needed to be: technically wonderful; low centre of gravity; the ball wanting to remain by his side and stubbornly refusing to be drawn to the opposition when a tackle came in.
It was no surprise then that Arshavin was linked with Barcelona; a player who fit the mould and whose superstardom, largely generated from that European Championship, would go on to see the Catalans further exert their dominance as one of the great powers in world football.
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What a coup it was then for Arsenal to land the midfielder ahead of everyone else, even if it took seven months and one of the most dramatic deadline days in recent memory. The turnaround in Arsenal’s fortunes was almost instant, as prior to Arshavin’s arrival it seemed as though Arsene Wenger would finally fall out of the top four following a less than inspiring summer of activity and chequered form in the league.
The four goals at Anfield is the first memory that springs to mind; the brilliance of Arshavin clashing with the predictable Arsenal as Wenger’s side surrendered a late, late goal to finish 4-4.
It was fantastic for players like Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie to finally have a superstar alongside them that was befitting of their own ability. Samir Nasri at the time was still settling into life in England and Jack Wilshere was still a way off from making an impact in the first team. The burden of responsibility could now be shared across a number of players who were legitimately good enough to act as the team’s leaders on the pitch.
Was it a lack of application then that saw a footballing superstar and potential great fall so far? There’s no doubt about how good Arshavin was when he was on form. The Russian, at his peak, was certainly one of Wenger’s best signings post-Highbury. But some supporters remain very reluctant to place any blame at the feet of Wenger for Arshavin’s stunning and ultimately sad demise.
The old trick of playing and succeeding in transforming a central player into a wide attacker simply didn’t work this time around. Where Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg were such integral components of previous title-winning teams, it really shouldn’t have been seen as the default option for every newcomer who didn’t unquestionably merit a spot in the centre of the pitch. Though did Arshavin’s brilliance not warrant a starting spot behind the striker? Wenger at that point had not changed to the 4-3-3 option, but the alteration came soon enough.
In the few chances over following seasons where Arshavin did get a rare chance through the middle for Arsenal, he looked like a player reborn. The ball once again found its way to him, though not with quite the same magic as before. He was able to craft out chances for his forward and fellow midfielders. It looked as though the player was showing where he could be of great benefit to the team, even if there wasn’t to be a long-term future.
Even his return to the European Championship in 2012 saw plenty of positives, as an aging Arshavin put forward a number of very good performances for Russia, once again playing a role that was familiar to him and disguised his shortcomings.
The lowest point of the Russian’s career arguably came in the 2-1 loss to Manchester United at the Emirates, though it would be nice to retell the tale of the boos being directed at Wenger’s decision to sub Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and not because Arshavin was taking to the field. Was it a tactical mistake by the manager to place an often ineffectual Arshavin into the game, or should we look to blame the Russian for the United winner coming from his flank?
Arshavin’s parting gift came all the way back in 2011 with that goal against Barcelona – a whole two years before he would eventually leave Arsenal for the second time and for good.
What is probably the truth, though some would fight it, is that the player’s rapid downfall was a culmination of mismanagement and lack of desire. Was he lazy? Often yes. Though players like Arshavin and Dimitar Berbatov can’t be shuffled around like others who are more versatile, despite their stunning talent.
Should we look to Wenger’s stubbornness in persevering where there was no likely outcome of success? Arshavin was never a sprinter who would tirelessly work up and down the flank; he was a technician who was one of the best players bought into the Emirates who could have easily and spectacularly executed the style of football that Wenger has long sought to deploy.
Somewhere in the criticism of Wenger in all this is heaps of praise. It’s shocking that it came to this with Arshavin, not only due to his talents, but because of Wenger’s excellent track record. We expected more and didn’t receive. There is blame to be had for both parties, but considering the monumental upside and potential that came with Arshavin in January 2009, this has to be viewed as one of Wenger’s biggest and most disappointing failures.
Is Arshavin one of Wenger’s biggest regrets?
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