Arshavin leaves memories, misgivings, & mystification

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Those sneaky Russians.  Just when we thought transfer activity for the season was done and dusted, Andrey Arshavin and Zenit St Petersburg have colluded to smuggle the diminutive attacker back to his hometown club on loan.  As the Russian transfer window slammed shut, Arshavin rolled Indiana Jones-style through the ever-decreasing gap.  If he’d been a foot taller, he might not have made it.

At the time I’m writing this, full details of the move have not emerged, but it seems Zenit will pay a £1m fee as well as taking over Arshavin’s £80,000 p/week pay packet. Presumably they’ll also have first refusal when Andrey makes his exit permanent in the summer.

I have to say, I’m disappointed to see him go. On a personal level, I had a lot of time for him as a player and a bloke, even as his form declined. But even I had accepted that his time at the club was hurtling towards its conclusion. What rankles more than his departure itself is the unusual timing.

Why are Arsenal voluntarily letting a squad member leave at a point in the season when it is impossible to replace them? I accept that we have Gervinho, Walcott, Benayoun and Oxlade-Chamberlain to fight for space on the wings, but with the exception of The Ox none of them are in particularly convincing form. Arshavin, for all his flaws, had shown an ability to come off the bench and make a difference – see his exceptional cross for Thierry Henry’s winner at Sunderland.

That was to be his last contribution to the first-team. He was an unused substitute at Milan and back at the Stadium of Light, before scoring two goals in a humbling outing for the Reserves. Arshavin saw his place in pecking order, and decided to bolt. He’s Russia’s captain for EURO 2012, and needs match practise ahead of what could be his final major tournament.

Of course, it could be argued that the departure of the Arshavin of 2012 is no great loss. He is a shadow of the man we signed, in every respect apart from his waistline. Back in February 2009, Arshavin’s signing was the most exciting since the arrival of Jose Reyes – possibly even Dennis Bergkamp. It’s easy to forget, but as the venerable Goonerholic pointed out on Twitter last night, at the time of his arrival Arshavin was a far more established name than either Mario Goetze or Eden Hazard are now. This was the man who had lit up Euro 2008 and inspired a resurgent Zenit to silverware. Arsenal were struggling and in danger of losing their Champions League spot – a now familiar scenario – and Arshavin was the man charged with saving our season.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that he did it. People talk about the four goal haul at Liverpool as if it was an isolated night of brilliance, but it wasn’t. For those few months between February and May, he was electrifying, playing with a roaming brief from the left of a 4-4-2. He scored one particularly remarkable goal against Blackburn, skipping along the byline before lifting the ball over Paul Robinson from the most acute of angels. The laziness that would later blight his game was still there; it was just tempered by the player’s sheer brilliance. He was a magician with motivation. Arshavin had made his big career move and it was paying dividends, for everyone.

At the start of the 2009/10 season, several seasoned pundits tipped Arshavin as a potential Footballer of the Year. Arsene Wenger, not one given to hyperbole over individuals, said of his star player:

“The Premier League needs a star like Arshavin now that Cristiano Ronaldo has gone. Arshavin stands for all that we love in football.

He is not only a great player but he has an honest, refreshing attitude. When there’s no penalty, he never complains. He’s not a drama queen. He’s fantastic for the Premier League.

Four or five years ago, the likes of Messi or Kaka would have come to England [rather than Spain] so it is important we have great players like Arshavin.”

However, after a bright start to the season, including a thirty yard thunderbolt at Old Trafford, Arshavin began to fade. He was played out of position as a lone striker for long period, and his form suffered. Then began the decline that would lead to him becoming more Carling Cup than Cristiano Ronaldo; more Michelin man than Messi.

Quite how and why it went wrong is hard to say. Certainly lack of application was a factor, but as stated before, even in his heyday at Zenit Arshavin was lazy. Strangely, the 4-3-3 that you would imagine to be so perfect for his talents never provided him with the same space as our more liberal 4-4-2. His roaming role evolved in to that of a conventional winger. And defending a full-back was never high on his list of priorities.

At times it was sad to watch him. He couldn’t trap a ball, let alone beat a man. Confidence was certainly an issue, and it often felt like he didn’t have the desire and drive required to come back. The talent was never, ever in question.

Even those dark days had their moments. Arshavin has provided more memories in three years than Tomas Rosicky has in six. Nothing, surely, topped this – that magical winner against Barcelona at the Emirates:

I’m not ashamed to say I shed a tear as that goal went in. And I wasn’t alone. It was a remarkable night, one on which we beat the world’s greatest football team, and it was Arshavin’s goal that did it.

That moment felt like the start of something. Looking back at that goal now, it was more the end. Watch that goal – Cesc, to Nasri, to Arshavin. All three players have since departed, in the space of 12 months. Whilst we’ve made some good signings, I wouldn’t say any have the raw natural talent that trio possess. There is now a gaping creative void in the squad – something you never thought you’d say about an Arsene Wenger team.

There will be plenty who will say ‘Good riddance’ to Arshavin, and I understand why. I don’t feel that way myself. I loved his style, his character, his portly gait. I empathise with the aesthete in him – a fashion design graduate who loved a beautiful goal and loathed a jog around cones. A luxury player who was doomed to fail in a side that became less luxurious with every passing season.

Goodbye, Andrey. And thanks for the memories.

The “Goodbye Cesc” post

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I have known for some time that I’d have to write this post.  Probably ever since Cesc Fabregas arrived as a 15 year-old back in 2003.  I ought to have prepared it and kept it on file, ready to go, like major media organisations do with obituaries. And yet, for some reason, even as the past week has made it clear his departure was imminent, I haven’t dared to start it.  Patently, it’s because I didn’t really want to.

Tonight, however, reality hit home, as Arsenal confirmed through their official website that an agreement with Barcelona had finally been struck. Arsene said:

“We have been clear that we didn’t want Cesc to leave and that remains the case. However, we understand Cesc’s desire to move to his home town club and have now accepted an offer from Barcelona. We thank Cesc for his contribution at Arsenal and wish him future success.”

The deal was done on Friday morning, though we’ve waiting till now to make any kind of official announcement – hopefully we’ve used the intervening period to make advances in spending the money we’ll receive for Cesc. On that note, there’ll be more from me on what Arsenal need to do to replace him later today, so stay tuned.

The fee has been confirmed by Sandro Rossell as being €29m upfront with a possible further €10m in add-ons. That’s an absolute maximum of £34.2m.

It is, of course, a steal. At the start of the summer we would have laughed off such a ridiculous fee. Now, it’s Barcelona who are laughing. Their disruptive tactics have won the day, and ultimately the player’s desire to move has seen us do a deal at a fee lower than that for which for Andy Carroll moved to Liverpool.

Aside from Barca’s antics, our negotiating position was weakened primarily by the fact that the race to sign Cesc contained just one Catalan horse. On the open market, he’d fetch £50m+, no doubt.

To be honest I don’t think the fee really matters. It’s almost entirely profit, meaning it even surpasses the ludicrous amount we made on Nicolas Anelka when we flogged him to Real Madrid. Whether he went for £30m, £40m, or £50m really makes no difference to me: he’s going.

Cesc is already in Barcelona and will undergo a medical tomorrow morning before being presented around 1230 UK-time. I will, at that precise point, be undergoing an operation in a dentist’s chair. Which promises to be less painful than having to watch him paraded.

There are so many reasons that losing Fabregas is a blow. He’s the club captain, and the heartbeat of the side. He is one of the world’s finest midfielders. And, for so long, he felt like one of our own.

Collectively, we watched him grow and develop from spindly prodigy to midfield maestro. I was there at Highbury when he became our youngest ever player against Rotherham in the League Cup. I was there when he became our youngest goalscorer, tapping in against Wolves. And I was there when he came of age in 2006, winning a duel with the grand master himself, Patrick Vieira, who by that time was playing for Juventus.

In his early years, Cesc lived with a club landlady, whose son is a friend of mine. To them – indeed, to all Arsenal supporters – he always felt like family. Inevitably, therefore, his departure feels like a rejection. Forgive the crowbarred analogy, but it’s a little like an adopted child deciding they’d like to go and be with their real parents. As much as we understand, it still hurts.

Whilst the pull of home is clearly a factor, one can’t help but feel a tinge of regret that Cesc is leaving earlier than any of us expected. Xavi is a long way from calling it a day, whilst the likes of Aaron Ramsey are not yet ready to fill the vacuum created by his absence.

He’s left, ultimately, because he no longer believes in the project. He wouldn’t relinquish the armband lightly. If he felt he could win trophies as captain of Arsenal, he would be staying for a year or two at least. Whatever anyone else tells you, whatever you read elsewhere, do not doubt that Cesc Fabregas loves Arsenal Football Club. Barcelona is in his blood, but Arsenal is in his heart. Sadly – and this will hurt Arsene enormously – he no longer believes that the team built around him with bear the fruit of trophies.

I can understand his frustration. His star has too often shone alone in Arsenal’s galaxy. The failure to sign the established players his talent deserved around him has cost him and Arsenal dear.

Now, at Barcelona, his potential seems destined to finally be fulfilled. When I hear pundits claim Cesc will warm the bench at Barca, I chuckle. Alongside the likes of Xavi, Villa and Messi, he will step up another gear. It pains me to say it, but I think Barca will see the best of Cesc. Whatever they ended up paying, it would have been a bargain: Fabregas is a Ballon D’Or winner waiting to happen.

He does, however, leave us with an awful lot of memories, including 303 appearances, 57 goals, and 98 assists. It’s sad that it ended the way it did, but when he was on the pitch for us I never doubted his commitment. I won’t be talking too much about Fabregas from now on – it’s important that the whole club moves on. Nor will the departing Samir Nasri be afforded a similar eulogy. But for now, for the sake of nostalgia, let’s end with some of Cesc’s finest moments.

The following video ends with an optimistic “to be continued?”. Sadly, it seems this love affair is, for now, over. It’s less “Cesc We Can”, and more “Cesc we could’ve”.

Farewell, El Capitán.