Date: 10th June 2010 at 11:41am
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In the third and final part of my “It`s Going To Be A Big Season For?” series, I focussed on Russian lothario Andrey Arshavin. This time last year, Arshavin was considered Arsenal`s saviour and one of the sole reasons we put a run together which toppled Villa out of the Top 4 and propelled us into the Champions League when it looked for so long as though Arsenal were going to have to settle for the Europa Cup. Arshavin came into a side that was struggling to score goals, after the Gunners failed to score in four consecutive matches in January 2009. The diminutive Russian brought with him a creative spark that Arsenal were badly missing without Fabregas. (To reiterate the point, in January 2009, Robin van Persie was credited with a direct assist or the goal itself every time Arsenal registered on the score sheet from January 1st to February 16th in 2009).

Of course, Arshavin was also an expensive and shiny toy, fresh from its cellophane packaging at the time and as such he was insulated from the brickbats of supporters. Yesterday Philippe Senderos departed, bringing the tired scenario of his maulings at the hands of Didier Drogba back to the Arsenal forums. People act as though Senderos was the only defender to ever suffer at Drogba`s hands, yet nobody seems to make the connection that in his two match ups with Vermaelen this season, Drogba scored four and caused Vermaelen to score an own goal himself. This is what I am getting at; Vermaelen is new and expensive enough for us to conveniently misplace any facts that are inconvenient to our swooning admiration. Give it another six months and Vermaelen will probably then be subjected to the hyper criticism a player gets when the first supporters dare break party ranks a good year after his unveiling. To some extent, this is the status Arshavin has now reached. After 18 months with the club, those that were apparently unaware that he wasn`t exactly the most industrious player (did it really take everyone a year to notice that?) have slowly begun to chide him for his work rate. Likewise, his moon faced demeanour and refusal to foist his badge up to his lips and beat his chest every time he scores doesn`t seem to play well with supporters keen for players to reassuringly clutch the club to its bosom. (Usually just before they agitate for a move to F.C. Mercenary. Or if you`re a bit stupid, like Adebayor, shortly after you agitate for a move to F.C. We Buy Any C** t). At the risk of self flagellation (moi?), this trend wasn`t difficult to predict, having written as I did last summer, “Arsenal fans have already begun to cling to him as a bastion of hope for a season which most likely promises more of the same, he is going to have to deal with that level of expectation and, knowing the fickleness of football supporters, he will have to bear the brunt of the backlash if his form deserts him.”

Though oft misquoted in the press (apparently telling the Russian press that he wasn`t happy with his season was enough to get the forums vibrating with moaning Gooners again), Arshavin is not entirely blameless. He might do well to speak to ex team mate William Gallas who has found that the most risk adverse way of avoiding press misinterpretation is not to bother talking to them in the first place. Wenger describes Arshavin as a naturally downbeat character and he should be well aware by now that a problem shared with the English press is a problem quadrupled. But whilst Arshavin is a player that generates discussion off the pitch, what of his performance on it on 2009-10? At the tail end of the 2008-09 season, he raised our expectations to stratospheric levels. I think it`s fair to say he hasn`t been able to adhere to the inevitable “PFA Player of the Year next season” predictions that are always foisted onto January signings. (In my article last summer I heeded the cautionary tale of Jose Antonio Reyes, who was anointed with similar aspersions in the summer of 2004).

Last summer I wrote about how Arshavin struck me as a single minded leader. Saying what needed to be said, doing what needed to be done before buggering off home for some vodka gespacho. However, that assumption has been shown to be incorrect on my part I believe. Whilst Arshavin does like to have his say and obviously enjoys the odd moan, I think I mistook this as a winner`s mentality and desire for better for his team, when in reality Arshavin does come across as an individual in every sense of the word. This was exemplified none more so than in the home game with Manchester United in January, when three early Arsenal attacks saw Arshavin- playing as a central striker- take on a shot when he had better placed team mates in his eye line. We always knew that tracking back was hardly his forte and I think Gael Clichy`s early season form suffered as a result of the lack of protection he was afforded, as well as his own over proclivity to attack. Though Arshavin`s starting role in the front three (when everyone is fit) is primarily on the left, he has license to drift infield and play all across the front three. One wonders whether the signing of Chamakh-attack signals a move back to a 4-4-2 formation which could see Arshavin played in a free role off the main striker and absolve him of all defensive responsibility. It was a role he seemed to excel in behind Bendtner in his first season.

Arshavin still looks to be the sort of player that drifts in and out of games, for all the hand wringing over his lack of application off the ball, over half of his goals in an Arsenal shirt arrive after the 75th minute of games, which would appear to suggest that he conserves his energy rather well and hurts teams when there is little time for riposte. His penchant for drifting in and out of games is hardly a new phenomenon that has come to light this season, so perhaps it was unrealistic of us to expect him to dominate games with his talent. His performance at Old Trafford this season points to the fickle nature of his game. For 40 minutes he barely touched the ball. Yet it was noticeable that United`s players cowered backwards the one time he received the ball in space. The consequence was that he belted the ball into the top corner from 30+ yards. Ditto at Anfield where his involvement was sporadic until he received the ball on the edge of the area and with three defenders closing him quickly, he managed to get the leverage to spank the ball into the back of the net with minimal back lift. Arshavin has the tools to be an element of surprise that I think Arsenal can scarcely do without. He is deceptively strong with a low centre of gravity (witness his goal at home to Stoke, when Huth tried to clatter him en route to goal, only to see Arshavin stand his ground and steer the ball into the bottom corner) and he also has the willingness and the ability to hit shots out of nowhere, with no back lift such as the ones at Old Trafford and Anfield. It makes him crucial to our armoury; even in games he doesn`t seem to be overly exerting himself in.

Arshavin of course spent a good deal of the season in an unfamiliar role leading the line as a central striker. Perhaps in the long term, the fact that it worked so well in his first two games in the position (versus Stoke and Liverpool) was bad for him in the long term. He has the guile to play pretty much anywhere, but lacks the physical presence and that was notable when Bendtner came back into the side to lead the line. I think people also underestimate the effect Russia`s elimination in the World Cup Qualifier against Slovenia in November had on him. At 29, he is at an age and has the requisite quality to light up a World Cup and I think it affected him badly to have that chance snatched away from him. I think there is also a tendency not to entertain the idea that van Persie`s absence had collateral effect on him. Van Persie is Arsenal`s soundboard upfront, holding the ball up and bringing others into play. As a wide forward, Arshavin lost the benefit of van Persie`s wit. He also found that more focus was exuded onto him from opposition players and supporters alike, he was expected to be our main spark upfront when Arshavin is and always has been a more peripheral player.

Questions surrounding his work rate I think are slightly wide of the mark, it is virtually impossible to conceive that, having signed him as a 28 year old, Wenger did not know the player he was signing or that he would have expected him to metamorphosise into some froth mouthed, jaw clenching runabout. Bergkamp was never any of those things; I think Arshavin was bought to be our “x factor” upfront. The player that can conjure something out of nothing when the tippy tappy passing isn`t cutting ice. He takes risks in front of goal, looks for the defence splitting pass and the keeper slaying shot, which gives him an edge over the more conservative powers of Nasri and Rosicky. But amongst the apologies and excuses, is the general fact that I believe Arshavin has the ability to produce more than he did last season, a fact he appears to acknowledge himself. That he only created 2 assists in the league is a damning indictment of his team play in the final third and I don`t doubt he will reflect on that in the summer. By most players` standards, the season Arshavin produced in 2009-10 would have represented a very good return indeed. But Arshavin isn`t most players. He gave us a good season. Next season, he has the ability to give us a great one.LD.