Gervinho will never be able to replicate what Lionel Messi has done at Barcelona, but it didn’t really need me to make that obvious. What he can do, however, is adapt to a role that’s been brought to prominence by the Argentine forward and, in turn, heavily favour Arsenal’s fortunes with new dynamics to their attacking play.
There was high praise for Gervinho while in France. He was brought to Le Mans with a lot of promise and played a key role in Lille’s title-winning success of two seasons ago. The praise wasn’t just limited to those off the pitch, as Eden Hazard described the Ivorian as one of the best players he’s played with.
Gervinho, however, was the runner-up to Hazard, the consolation prize for Arsenal fans who really wanted the Belgian superstar in the red and white. His first season at the club was well short of what he’d accomplished in French football, with many fans and even the then Arsenal captain suggesting the move for the player was a mistake. Probably. There was certainly enough evidence to suggest Gervinho would fail to reach the heights of what was projected for him, but more importantly what Arsenal needed from him. Four goals and five assists is ok for a newcomer to the Premier League, but it shouldn’t be acceptable for an attacking player performing at a top four club.
Deadwood? Maybe a bit harsh, but Gervinho was showing little to suggest he was good enough to be a mainstay in Arsenal’s starting XI. He appeared weak, tame, with mental fragility and lacking quick and precise decision-making in and around the penalty area. However, there is a real feeling that Robin van Persie’s presence hindered the impact of the Gunners’ new signing. We saw it with Thierry Henry and players like Alex Hleb; the supporting cast in the team needed to look to the leader on the pitch first and contribute in their own way second. The shackles are off now. Look at the impact Alex Hleb had in 2007/08 following Henry’s departure. Is there even a hint that we could see another great contribution from a player who really was in the shadow of a former captain?
Arsene Wenger has played this magic trick before, transforming a misfiring wide player into a centralised striking superstar. And while I’m not suggesting Gervinho is on the way to becoming the next Thierry Henry, Wenger has plenty of experience in finding the most fitting role for his players and bringing out the best in them.
Despite his lack of goals last season, Gervinho’s dribbling ability and confidence to get past the last defender is excellent. A wide player with genuine attributes of playing in that position. What about through the middle? Wenger tested the player in that role in last year’s preseason, with the player grabbing two goals in his first game with the club away to Koln. This season, when a lot of emphasis was on bringing in another striker to compete with Olivier Giroud and fill the squad out, there’s been talk of Gervinho operating through the middle in training. Maybe this was the other striker the club were looking for.
He displayed cutting edge in the home win against Southampton, using his versatility to leave the opposition defenders second-guessing his movements and dragging the Southampton players out of position. Two goals for Gervinho on the day but two very different styles. The tap in for the second goal is a quality that Arsenal have long been searching for in a striker. The first, however, was a demonstration of Gervinho’s composure and ability to race away from a defence and put away a golden opportunity. The Gervinho of last season would definitely have looked to pass instead of shoot.
Much more work is needed to tell if Gervinho’s new role is the real deal. But what it does guarantee Arsenal is a plan B; another option when Giroud isn’t quite working; a quick, tricky player who can unsettle a stubborn backline.
Give Gervinho a purpose in the squad, a real role that the team can benefit from, one that turns frustrating dead end situations into points. Early days yet, but Gervinho definitely has the build and quickness to allow Arsenal to adopt the false 9 role and be very threatening in a once one dimensional attack.