Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Thursday June 4 2009
The difficulty in providing the countdown for this season`s top five players was exemplified very neatly on the forum for the 5th choice Manuel Almunia. Half the contributions expressed doubt as to his suitability for Arsenal`s number one, the other half were fulsome in praise and some suggested he should have been higher. Personally, I`m not even sure where I would pitch my tent between those two camps! Fourth choice I am sure will draw similarly schismatic opinion, though certainly not through doubt of the quality of the player, which I am sure every Gooner will unanimously attest has been beyond reproach thus far. However, said player has played in less than half of our games in this campaign and played no part in either the Champions League or the Carling Cup. But there again, where Andrey Arshavin is concerned, nothing about his Arsenal career has been straightforward. From the ultra protracted transfer of the player, his four goal salvo at Anfield would be pointed to by many as his highlight, yet he probably touched the ball about five times in that match and failed to protect Kieran Gibbs at left back, which contributed to us conceding four. Aside from the Anfield destruction, Arshavin`s most talked about stint in an Arsenal shirt has probably been a certain match at Wembley which he spent on his arse peering on from the bench.
Arshavin began to make a name for himself in Zenit St. Petersburg`s victorious UEFA Cup campaign in 2007-08. That summer, he was one of the stand out players in a Euro 2008 that was otherwise entirely governed by the Spanish. That summer, he aroused interest from the likes of Barcelona, A.C. Milan, Real Madrid and, errrm, Spurs. His agent Dennis Lachter practically had Arshavin donning thigh high leather boots and hot pants as he pimped his client out to all and sundry. But Arsene bided his time to get his man, putting out the word over the wire that Arshavin was not cut out for the physical demands of the Premiership, Wenger waited until January to tempt him to North London. The Russian league season runs from February until November, therefore signing Andrey in the summer would have seen him play two seasons on top of one another and would undoubtedly have led to burn out. By signing him on the second day of February, we got an Arshavin who had just undergone his natural pre season and thus, he was handed to us, keys and all, fully serviced with a satisfactory MOT and one of those little air fresheners hanging from the rear view mirror. With Alex Hleb having shuffled and shimmied his way to Cataluña and an already burnt out Fabregas recuperating from injury, the Arsenal of the winter months had taken on something of a George Graham persona, eking out unspectacular 1-0 wins followed by a succession of 0-0 draws. Whilst defensive solidarity had improved, Arsenal needed a spark, a catalyst, with UEFA Cup football looking to be on the horizon, that spark came in the shape of Arshavin, albeit via the most protracted transfer in the history of football. His arrival was marked with heavy snow storms; he even took his native weather with him! Agent Arshavin`s assignment was clear. Save our season.
His debut against Sunderland nearly yielded a goal inside five minutes, as he ducked inside of Ferdinand and hit a vicious shot which was excellently saved by Marton Fulop. Minutes later, he found another pocket of space on the edge of the area and drove a low, Bergkampesque shot just wide. His fitness was still a tad rusty at that point, but these were early glimpses of the contribution he was soon to make. With two matches under his belt and the ring rustiness cleared, Arshavin began to cement his prominence in March, in the game at West Brom he began upfront with Bendtner and the pair dovetailed instantly with a dual attacking display which destroyed an admittedly poor Baggies defence. He also demonstrated a handy string to the bow as two of his set pieces led directly to Arsenal goals that night. He added a further assist in his next game against Burnley, picking up the ball in a vacuum of space in the final third of the pitch and threading a perfectly weighted through ball to Vela for the young Mexican to score. But his true coup de grace came the next week against fellow Lancastrians Blackburn Rovers. He was prominently involved in Andre Ooijer`s early own goal, though the stadium announcer proclaimed him to be the goal scorer, Arshavin was quick to shun the acclaim. He had something better planned for his first strike.
The home crowd had already warmed to his quality and invention, but we had seen but glimpses. In the second half of the Blackburn match, he well and truly blew open the piñata. He manoeuvred into the area from the left, dropped his shoulder and shimmed past Danny Simpson to the touchline, with everyone expecting the cut back. Fatty Robinson in the Rovers goal included, Arshavin slyly shifted his body and curled the ball into the roof of the net from the tightest of angles. It was a beguiling goal of quality and ingenuity. In the days of jumbotron screens, these goals always stand out as you can audibly hear the crowd collectively exhale when they view the goal back on replay. Our minds had not had time to process what he had done in real time, as a supporter in the stadium it was something of a "now you see it now you don`t" moment. I can`t genuinely remember a goal doing that to me since I watched van Persie ninja kick the ball into the back of Charlton`s net at the Valley. A week later at St. James` Park, Arshavin shook off a calculated and malicious elbow from Newcastle`s incredibly over rated centre half Steven Taylor by first cracking a thirty yard thunderbolt onto Newcastle`s bar. He then provided yet another assist with a precise in swinging free kick onto Bendtner`s head. He had already become one of the most vital component parts of our team as Arsenal began to find the net again; something they pointedly struggled to do pre Arshavin.
But perhaps Arshavin`s value was best illuminated in two games in April. At a JJB Stadium enveloped in early spring sunshine, Arshavin was a virtual passenger as the Latics took a deserved one goal lead into half time. In the second half, he still gave the impression of a man who had succumbed to complete anonymity. Yet within minutes, his clever shift of feet in the area released Walcott to equalise, his quick thinking and throw in allowed Fabregas to square for Silvestre to put us in the ascendancy and he then helped himself to a goal with a quick fire strike from the edge of the area. He probably touched the ball all of four times yet had a goal an assist and a pre assist (if such a thing exists?) to his name. Here was a player capable of turning a game in even his most meandering and unimpressive of matches. Like a cobra, he could lay dormant for an age and make you question what on earth he is doing on the pitch and before you know it, he has struck with venom and precision, winning you a match virtually by himself. A week later he was left out of the starting line up for the F.A. Cup Semi Final with Chelsea. That Arsenal narrowly lost the game with Arshavin only arriving from the bench fourteen minutes from time has been something of a sore point for Gooners ever since. Personally, I can see why Wenger made the decision, Diaby, apparently is supposed to add power to our midfield, so the criteria for his selection was obvious. I think the fact that Hiidink knows Arshavin better than even Wenger does at this stage may also have been a factor. We`ll never know if we would have won the match with Arshavin in the starting line up, but that so many Arsenal fans believe we would have, symbolises the regard he has found so quickly amongst Arsenal fans.
Then of course there was the four goal salvo at Anfield that followed, as I have already said, I happen to think the lack of protection he provided Gibbs at left back contributed to Benayoun and Kuyt destroying our defence, but he helped himself to four goals, all varied efforts. Two 'sniffer` goals in the six yard area, one lung bursting run and finish on the breakaway. But his second goal stands out for me, when he dispossessed Arbeloa and promptly smashed the ball into the net from twenty yards without so much as a second thought. One of the key criticisms of Arsenal over the last three years has been their prevarication in the final third, Arshavin is decisive and ruthless in this area, unafraid to take on the shot if it is on and perfectly capable of hitting the target to boot. He also appears to have an acute awareness of when to deliver the pass, a great example of this would be his assist for van Persie in the F.A. Cup game with Hull. The ball arrived to Arshavin from close range with the goalkeeper sprawling at his feet; he showed the composure and presence of mind to shift the ball to van Persie for a tap in. In a team of young and sometimes excitable players, Arshavin demonstrates a very cool head which experience begets you. Arshavin has become a pivot of the team and looks to be the key to Arsenal rediscovering their past Wengerball persona, for instance, Fabregas` first goal against Middlesbrough saw him play a quick, decisive through ball which sliced the Boro rearguard open from the centre circle. Again, it`s this kind of decisiveness which has shorn away the pretension from Arsenal`s play. The club have been quick to latch onto his popularity by including him in the images for the launch of the new away kit. Already popular with fans, revered by the opposition and respected by his team mates, he has taken on the mission to save our season by appointing himself the creative fulcrum, the glue which holds our attack together. If he continues this imperious form into the whole of next season, he will likely find himself three places higher than 4th in next season`s player of the season rankings. Quite simply, and this is idle speculation I guess, I don`t think Arsenal would have qualified for the Champions League next season without him. Mission accomplished comrade Arshavin.LD.
Date:Thursday June 4 2009
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