Date: 13th August 2009 at 11:51am
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The two primary players I have focussed on this week so far have been players who should now be riding hard on the heels of maturity and blossoming into fully pollinated sunflowers. But the third player to exude focus on is at a different end of the spectrum with a different kind of expectation. Andrey Arshavin burst onto the scene amidst the snow storms in February and pulled Arsenal`s season up by its bootstraps. Six goals and twelve assists in fifteen games really does speak for itself, yet it was the games in which Arshavin did not play- namely the two semi final defeats- that saw his stock swell as one of Arsenal`s most important players. I don`t ever recall an Arsenal player taking a team by the scruff of the neck so soon after his arrival. (Though I do recall that Eddie McGoldrick`s team mates nicknamed him ‘Snowy` shortly after his arrival from Crystal Palace- on account of the fact he settled so quickly. How times change). The expectation is that Arshavin will be amongst the contenders for the Player of the Year award come voting time. (This takes place in late September for the PFA Award I believe). But with great expectation comes great responsibility and herein lies the challenge for Arshavin.

There is perhaps a cautionary tale from a past Arsenal January signing. After an increasingly impressive end to the Invincible season, the summer of 2004 saw Jose Antonio Reyes tipped for Arsenal greatness, for a little while it looked like he would achieve it too. But a mixture of the Neville brothers` studs and Henry`s barely concealed jealousy put paid to what should have been a glittering Gunners career. However, Arshavin gives you the impression he is made of sterner stuff, not only is he older and more wily at 28, but all Russian men are just like Dolph Lundgren from Rocky IV aren`t they? Exactly, you just wouldn`t fuck with that would you? (The thought of Arshavin staring down coldly at a prone Phil Neville and muttering, “If he dies, he dies” this Saturday is a fantasy induced reverie that borders on the sexual). Plus, good player though he was, Reyes was a bit of a mummy`s boy. Arshavin appears to be more single minded, offering often outspoken opinion on team matters. Andrey shows the traits of a leader and I don`t necessarily think it a bad thing if one of the senior members of the squad has his say from time to time. For me, his leadership skills were neatly encapsulated in the F.A. Cup encounter with Hull in March, having set up van Persie`s equaliser, Arsenal players tried to indulge their irritating habit of skipping towards the corner flag like a bunch of delirious boy band mad girlies for a dance and a cuddle when the Gunners still needed another goal to win the game. Arshavin angrily ushered them back to the centre circle, pointing and gesticulating sternly like a schoolmaster that has just caught some red faced adolescent boys trying to sneak into the girls` toilets. I have lost count of the amount of times I`ve witnessed an Arsenal equaliser at the Emirates to find myself not so much celebrating, as angrily screaming, “GET BACK TO THE ****ING CENTRE CIRCLE YOU MORONS!!” Arshavin`s experienced head will be required amongst Arsenal`s sea of delirious adolescence.

The incident also crystallized Arshavin`s attributes as a winner and Arsenal`s young players will need to feed ravenously off of that teat. Only Gallas can rival Arshavin`s credentials as having “been there and dunit” and won medals. The manager and some supporters might point to disappointments of recent seasons as tangible experience for our young players to draw on. I think this misses the point massively; Arsenal`s young players have plenty of experience of defeat in big matches- they still have not quite cracked how to win when the pressure is on. I don`t see how repetitive failure coaches one to deal with that. I spent a good deal of my late teens and early twenties being knocked back by half of the female population of South East London and as I now enter my late twenties, I can tell you, those chastening experiences haven`t morphed me into some kind of latter day Casanova. Believe me. Arshavin`s counsel will be needed again in these sorts of matches. That`s now three paragraphs and I haven`t even begun to pontificate on his importance to our style of play, so much as just his personality being crucial. That`s a lot of responsibility without even kicking a ball.

Arshavin will not only have to shoulder the burden of leadership for his team mates, but for himself too. His performances were such last season that he will again be expected to be one of our leading lights. 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. Football players are just as media fed as the rest of us and this means he will be identified as one of our most potent threats- Arshavin is likely to be marked closely and kicked repeatedly. Once again, he gives an impression of being robust enough to handle this singular treatment but the proof will ultimately be in the pudding. He may even have to contend with being man marked from time to time- the truest backhanded compliment a footballer can receive.

Once again, the new 4-3-3 formation presents Arshavin with opportunities. It looks as though the wide left berth of the front three will be labelled with the number 23, but of the front three, I would have thought Arshavin will have the greatest license to roam. With Fabregas increasingly confined to trying to find Adebayor with long passes in the last two seasons, Arshavin`s presence should be responsible for changing our dynamic. Arshavin will essentially be Fabregas` link man between midfield and forward, making Arsenal`s interplay more intelligent and giving Fabregas license to play a short pass to Arshavin before roaming forwards himself and repeating his goal scoring feats of 2007. You could say that Arshavin is variously a replacement for Adebayor, Bergkamp and Hleb all rolled into one. By taking Adebayor`s stead, Arsenal`s play becomes less predictable and harder to defend against and also leaves van Persie to weave his magic in the penalty area. In replacing Hleb, Arshavin becomes Fabregas` sounding board for attack once again, easing the creative burden on the young Catalan (not to mention the leadership burden) and allowing him the opportunity to move forwards. Arshavin essentially becomes the pivot and springboard.

Comparisons have also been made with Bergkamp, which brings its own pressure. Arshavin has the vision to split defences, he acts quickly when he sees the opportunity for the pass- a fine antidote to Arsenal`s overly ponderous build up play. Look at our first goal in the Middlesbrough home game back in April, after Bendtner`s clever flick in the centre circle, Arshavin sees space and releases the ball instantly in a manner becoming of the Dutch master. If Arsenal are to utilise Walcott on the right side of a front three, this particular gift could bring tangible rewards, I discussed yesterday how Walcott`s pace could potentially push defences backwards. If the defence retreats to offset that threat, Arshavin is given time on the ball in the final third just off the forwards- and we know he can unleash a shot from range. If defenders are tempted to push up against Arshavin, his instant eye for the pass and calm execution could set Walcott away to wreak havoc in behind. For any Arsenal player wishing to venture beyond the centre circle next season, Arshavin is going to be the hub. But all the while he will have to preserve his defensive duties too, for the 4-3-3 to work successfully; it will have to metamorphosise into a 4-5-1 when we surrender possession. Many point to Arshavin`s four goal haul at Anfield as evidence of his immense quality, but the game also revealed his biggest weakness. A big factor in Arsenal conceding four that night was Arshavin`s lack of diligence in protecting Kieran Gibbs, allowing Kuyt and Benayoun to spit roast our young full back with impunity. It will be important for him to rectify this, having three forwards means only having three midfielders and both he and Walcott will need to be resolute in their defensive duties, both players have shown weakness in this area in the past. What is clear is that Arshavin is an incredibly intelligent footballer and possibly the only outfield player Arsenal has that can be described as entering his prime, the expectation upon him, from supporters, team mates and his manager is enormous for a man still in the infancy of his Arsenal career. How well he assumes the aforementioned responsibilities will go a long way to determining how successful Arsenal`s season is.LD.