The instant piece of control to kill a hoisted ball, the deft, first-time touch into a team-mate’s path, the reverse pass that was barely there. Such fractions of a football match can capture imagination just as thirty yard blockbusters can.
It takes a special player to stun a stadium into Hollywood-esque slow-motion with a single application of boot on ball: a player, perhaps, with dazzling intricacy, effortless conduct of a game’s tempo, or corneas that could spot a through ball from outer space. Not a great player, necessarily, but a special one.
They have a superior guile of mind, an acute speed of thought and a penchant for unpredictability that lifts derrières as ball approaches foot. That’s not to say they are the perfect footballer, that they are match-winners or that they are immune to mistakes, but what bifurcates them from the ‘ordinary’ footballer is that they can produce these modicums of virtuosity, these snippets of artistry. They can lift a thousand eyebrows and commission a thousand ‘wow’s.
Andrey Arshavin fits this mould. Hear me out.
Really? Do I really speak of the plump-cheeked forward of Arsène Wenger’s League Cup XI with the minimalist haircut straight from 1987’s Soviet Union, he whose performances could make an Asda ready meal look consistent? Yes. It’s rarely happened – or even had the chance to – of late, but when Arshavin is on song and his poise, vision and skill amalgamate, the man is a magician.
However few and far between those moments are nowadays, however sporadic the brilliance, he has proven his talent enough for it to be undoubted. He was the twinkle-footed playmaker at the heart of hometown club Zenit Saint Petersburg’s charge to the 2007 Russian Premier League, but it was his performances in the next season’s UEFA Cup – also won by Zenit – which really pricked up the ears of Europe’s big cats.
At that Summer’s European Championship finals, Arshavin took those same ears, twisted them round and tied them up in a pretty bow. Russia were impressive in their own right but Arshavin, at his scintillating best, was a cut above. Despite being suspended for the first two games, his place in Russia’s squad was never in doubt, such was his importance to the side. In his absence Russia lost one, to eventual winners Spain, and won one, narrowly beating Greece.
On his return, Arshavin orchestrated a performance of attacking verve as Russia swept aside Sweden with ease. Playing centrally, and behind the striker, Arshavin had a large hand in the first goal before starting and finishing the flowing attack which yielded the second. The quarter-final brought another extraordinary team performance from Russia and another mesmeric individual performance from Arshavin, who teed up two and scored the other as Russia outclassed a strong Dutch team.
Although the semi-final against Spain proved a hurdle too far, the majestic Arshavin had lit up the tournament. It was ‘come and get me’ time as the rich kids of England and Spain jostled for the season’s must-have toy.
Zenit were well braced. Barcelona’s offer of £13 million was rejected, as was a slightly more lucrative offer of £16 million from the slightly less lucrative destination of Tottenham. Zenit wanted £22 million, suitors baulked, and the player had to stay – although all parties must have known it wouldn’t be for long. In the end – and they left it until the very end of the Winter window, not confirming the transfer until February 3rd – it was Arsenal’s £15 million that prized from Zenit their greatest asset.
His immediate impact in helping Arsenal to Champions League qualification was reflected in the fact that he was voted runner-up in Arsenal’s play-of-the-season poll, despite only joining halfway through the campaign. Four goals in that astonishing 4-4 draw at Anfield, the undoubted highlight of his début season, formed a peak in his Arsenal career only since matched by the Gunners’ famous defeat of Barcelona in February 2011, in which Arshavin rounded off a counter attack spanning the length of the field to score the winning goal.
When he’s in the mood, cheeks puffed, feet dancing, playing in a joyous manner, he is in turn a joy to watch. There’s something rather charming about Arshavin: a loveable quirkiness. How many other footballers would give the following Q&A answers?
Andrey, are you frightened of bears?
Arshavin: On the contrary, I like bears.
What do you think of Grigory Rasputin?
Arshavin: This man had a certain talent that allowed him to wield power over people. I think that he was an eccentric person.
Whilst any lingering doubters of Arshavin’s talents were swept aside with another set of stellar performances for Russia at the 2012 European Championship finals, there are theories aplenty as to the reasoning behind his falling out of favour at club level since. One oft-leveled criticism is that he is too lazy for Wenger’s liking, or perhaps, as eluded to earlier, it is his inconsistency which sees him play second fiddle to Cazorla & co.
I myself am part of the school of thought that Wenger’s refusal to play him in his favoured ‘no. 10’ role, in which he has been so devastating both for Zenit and on the international stage, is the underlying problem. Arsenal’s wealth of midfield talent has resulted in Arshavin’s limited recent opportunities coming from the flanks as a wide midfielder-cum-forward, a position where a player who can ‘go missing’ during games sees even less of the ball.
The most effective Arshavin is a central Arshavin: involved in everything his team does and with runners all around him. But hey, who am I to argue with Arsène Wenger?
What is clear is that such a player needs first-team football, and that looks like it will only come with a move elsewhere. Whoever signs him up will be taking something of a risk, as Arshavin’s enigmatic style nor philosophy won’t change. He’ll always be a player who frustrates and delights in equal measure: unpredictability is his very nature. That’s just who he is.
A maverick, if you like. A genius, I’d say.