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.