The Last Word: Is the wasting of Andrei Arshavin’s talent at Arsenal his fault – or Arsène Wenger’s?
It is impossible to believe no other manager could have played him better
You would like to have seen Roberto Mancini’s face on learning that his former employers, after limiting themselves last summer to the deadline-day signing of the Bristol Rovers tea lady and a janitor from Celta Vigo, had forked out £50m for two galacticos in the first week of June.
Albeit not, perhaps, quite as much as you would like to see the face of one of those new arrivals. Where the rest of us have a couple of bloodshot windows on to a mean, depleted inner life, the eyes of Jesus Navas are wells of ethereal mystery.
It remains to be seen whether a Manchester winter will prove sensible therapy for an Andalusian who suffered chronic homesickness in his youth. Let’s hope that a new fortitude can help Navas, at 27, consummate his thrilling talent. Let’s also hope, then, that he doesn’t bump into Andrei Arshavin going through Heathrow.
Arshavin was the same age as Navas now when becoming Arsenal’s record signing, at £15m, in 2009. This week, his purgatory there was formally concluded by an announcement that his contract would not be renewed. Many Arsenal fans seem delighted. They depict Arshavin as a flimsy, indolent mercenary whose idea of regaining the ball is to slip back past a nightclub bouncer. Even those wishing him good riddance, however, should be asking not just where it all went wrong, but whether things might have turned out differently.
For his time here became a heartbreaking waste. Paradoxically, perhaps its saddest moment came a year ago, in Russia’s opening game at the European Championship, when he suddenly resurrected the world-class playmaker who had seduced Arsène Wenger at the same tournament four years previously.
The joy was back, the flair and wit that had inspired Zenit St Petersburg to the Uefa Cup, and eviscerated the Netherlands in Basel. Where had he been, this rosy-cheeked pixie who scored all four goals in that famous draw at Anfield, so soon after his arrival? And what kind of scandalous dereliction – on his own part, or his manager’s – could account for his banishment to peer over Wenger from the bench?
The day Arshavin signed, London lay under snow. Nobody could know the deeper permafrost also imported from Russia. This last season was a live interment, mercilessly slow, ultimately comprising 11 cameo appearances. He did not feature in the Premier League after January.
In the meantime he was trousering 85 grand a week as compensation for the squandering of his prime. His disenchantment doubtless became as manifest, in training and attitude, as it must be counted unsurprising. It was duly reciprocated by the jeers of those Arsenal fans who condense as well as any overpaid foreigner the air of entitlement that besets the Premier League. And it turned out that his irritating, forefinger-to-lips goal celebration only anticipated the hush now pervading his entire professional life, at 32 years of age.
But if the situation has brought out the worst in Arshavin, then it has arguably done the same in his manager. In some stubborn recess of his personality, Wenger is perhaps secretly gratified to show what can happen when he listens to his critics, and actually spends money. For a man so reluctant to find the extra wages to keep his best players, he certainly pays plenty to those he doesn’t rate.
If Arshavin has a fragile temperament, it is impossible to believe that no other manager could have played him better – whether on or off the pitch. In the former respect, certainly, Arshavin has always flourished as nimble foil to a striker. All four goals at Anfield were scored cutting through the middle. Yet Wenger persisted in putting him out to grass, on the wing, even after the departure of Fabregas.
Arshavin’s flicks and feints, aimed through the heart of defence, were plainly too luxurious. Possession football is more conservative than its glamour implies. His defensive deficiencies, meanwhile, were exaggerated by those who ostensibly “replaced” Gaël Clichy behind him. Arshavin arrived, remember, to find the club’s biggest personalities itching to leave. He ended up behind Gervinho and Aaron Ramsey.
Navas, now there’s a proper winger for you. But would Wenger give him more latitude? Arshavin himself long had a reputation for psychological delicacy. His parents divorced, his father died young. Like Navas, Andrei was a hometown boy, joining a local football academy at seven. But when he had seen enough there – no less than here – he was accused of sloth and indiscipline.
Perhaps someone might have indulged him more judiciously in Italy or Spain – both on the pitch, as trequartista; and off it, as someone whose explanation for a fashion diploma (namely, as a ploy to meet girls) cannot ring wholly true, when you consider his broader artistry. As it is, the Premier League puffs out its chest and dismisses Arshavin as vain and shameless. It prefers lesser players, whose pride and pragmatism make them better men. As such, who is qualified to presume whether Arshavin first lost interest, or confidence? And who could blame him, on either count?
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