At his press conference in Kuala Lumpur this morning, Arsene Wenger confirmed Arsenal’s first major signing of the summer: Lille’s Ivorian attacker Gervais Yao Kouassi – more commonly known as Gervinho.
If it’s felt like this transfer has been a long time coming, that’s because it has. And I’m not just talking about the past few weeks of negotiations. The seeds of this signing were sewn long ago.
Gervinho is, like Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Eboue before him, a graduate of the ASEC Mimosas academy in Abidjan. Like Eboue and Kolo’s brother Yaya, his first stop out of Africa was Belgian club Beveren.
Gervinho first came to my attention in late 2004, when Arsenal were pursuing the permanent signing of trialist Eboue. Being the curious type that I was, I hopped on to a Beveren Fans Forum to enquire about the potential addition to the Arsenal ranks. The Beveren fans delivered a portentous warning, suggesting Eboue’s attitude might not be up to the rigours of the Premier League. They were surprised he’d been singled out above other players – particularly an emerging youngster who’d stepped up from the youth team and shown glimpses of real potential: Gervinho.
Gervinho earnt his exotic name from a Brazilian academy coach. He’s blessed with an unusual combination of gifts: tall and athletic, with that characteristic Ivorian upper-body power, he has a South American-influenced dribbling style, using his close control and intuition to weave his way between defenders and scoot in on goal.
Arsene Wenger has watched him all the way. From Beveren to Le Mans, and on to Lille, where Gervinho blossomed in to the player he is now. In last season’s title-winning campaign, Gervinho was the only player in Ligue 1 to reach double figures for both goals and assists. To put that in context, only Didier Drogba and Wayne Rooney matched the feat in the Premier League. Samir Nasri, who netted a comparable amount of goals, managed just 1 league assist.
Not that Gervinho has been bought to replace Nasri. Far from it. Arsene wants to keep his fellow Frenchman because he sees Gervinho as an ideal compliment. Arsene’s plan for last season was to use Nasri and Arshavin as his wingers in a 4-3-3; the former all grace and guile, the latter erratic but explosive.
However, Arshavin’s poor form forced Arsene to look elsewhere. He needed a player who wasn’t just a keep-ball merchant, but was willing or extrovert enough to take risks, make things happen, and score goals. Gervinho wasn’t always first choice,
For a few years Arsene has had his eyes on a versatile Ivorian attacker who dribbles and score goals. One far closer to home: Chelsea’s Salomon Kalou. Several inquiries have been made in recent years, all without success. With Gervinho becoming available, and off the back of such an excellent season, that put the kibosh on Kalou.
Gervinho will now play from the right of our 4-3-3, replicating his role at Lille last season. On the left, Samir Nasri will cut in as Hazard did back at Lille. Our system should be home from home for Gervinho.
In a way, it feels like Arsene’s transfer policy has finally come home too. After a few years of signing diminutive Latin or Eastern European playmakers, he’s returned to the tried and tested formula of African genes and French schooling that gave us Vieira, Henry, Toure and more.
Gervinho won’t be expected to live up to those names. It’d be enough if he could live up to his own, as the African warrior with samba skills. No pressure, then.