Old dogs and new tricks
That Arshavin hasn't set the PL alight as some anticipated over the last couple of seasons is a matter of some introspection among some of the Russian sports sites, along with similar head scratching that other Russian players such as Zhirkov, Bilyaletdinov and Pubplayerchenko haven`t managed to establish themselves as first picks for their respective PL teams. But Arshavin is the glamour boy of Russian football, captain of the national team and an intriguing media character with views that are sought widely there with a few books on diverse subjects to his name and a growing catalogue of product endorsements.
When Arsene brought Arshavin in as pretty well his first ever 'big name' or 'glamour' signing for the club, though Gallas or Campbell might challenge that, it was impossible not to be carried along with the eleventh hour deadline excitement or fail to be warmed by his memorable announcement on the stadium steps 'I am gooner'. His individual performances in some of the 14 games he started in that season, not least of which was a breathtaking individual cameo and 4 goal haul at Anfield, encouraged the belief that we had a player who would scorch his way through the PL. So much so that we were able to forget that as a team the performance in that Liverpool game was one of our worst team performances in an age. We were simply battered from pillar to post. Therein lays the problem with football at this level. It's a strong team of talented players that will triumph consistently not simply a collection of brilliant individuals.
Wenger knew that of course and Arshavin is intelligent enough to know that he would have to change his game to meet the demands of football at this level. At times he struggled to do that in his second season not helped by a persistent foot injury and being forced to play an even more unfamiliar role than that of left side midfield as a lone striker in the 'striker crisis' prior to Christmas. He has continued to struggle to fully come to terms with the game this season. Therein is his crisis of confidence. It's one thing to have to adapt your game in a new league as player in your early or even mid twenties, to change the habits and modify the skills you've acquired in a league in which both his former agent and former club boss have acknowledged that Arshavin, a self confessed poor trainer, could play in on one leg, it's quite another for a player now a few months short of his 30th birthday.
The effect the English game has had on his playing style must be frustrating for him. " I can say that my style has altered - it is more effective, but less sparkling," he said earlier this season as he regretted "I don't remember when was the last time I scored a really beautiful goal."
Whether he regrets giving himself this challenge, or sacrificing the freedom to play as he wished in Russia, so late in his career it is something he has reflected on recently. "I do not have enough acceleration. From the very start of this season I felt I'm fast enough only in separate episodes," he told the Sun "The reason? I don't know. Maybe I'm just getting old.
"Now when I get the ball, I begin to think, Should I try and trick an opponent? Or if I do, will I lose the ball? And what if I make a pass? Won't they think that I am trying to get rid of the ball?
"I am afraid of taking the initiative. When such thoughts appear, your final decision, as a rule, turns out to be wrong. And you waste a lot of opportunities. That was happening to me in recent matches."
Two small examples in recent games draw attention to some of the doubts he has at present. It seems perfectly reasonable to accept that a wide player can lose the ball in the attacking third as Arshavin did in the incident that led to Squilacci getting himself sent off at the weekend. In this circumstance though Arshavin saw Gibbs run past him and even though 70 yards from his own goal it's not surprising, in an Arsenal side, to see that he was still one of the players furthest back. Without full back cover there was a risk in losing possession there irrespective of whatever criticisms may be made of those behind him. It's a risk you probably wouldn't see players with a different football education like Nasri, Rosicky, Pires or even Hleb take in the same situation. In another cup game Andrey showed for a simple pass from central midfield but in failing to look up to be aware of those around him allowed the pass to be intercepted which again cost possession in a move in which a goal was eventually conceded.
Arshavin is a strong and determined character though and his impressive defensive tackle in our goal area at the weekend shows he isn't lazy as some claim, or deaf to the advice of people like Keown who last month singled him out for switching off when we don't have the ball. "I think had he been playing in our team, someone would've had a word in his ear and said 'Listen, fantastic what you're doing in possession, we know they're your strengths, but you have to work for the team as well'."
Andrey though has to adapt his game in a team in which some younger players team skills have a head start on him and he must expect that players like Nasri will develop at a faster rate while he has to work ever harder just to maintain his physical level. For all that he is still a very good player and Wenger is right to point to his numbers this season as showing that he is contributing. His natural talent can and will on occasions provide moments to admire and no doubt there are good games ahead but instead of waiting for a return to a form that in truth was never really there in this league or anticipating a repeat of that mercurial night at Anfield we should accept that what we are seeing now is what he is but that that is still very good though maybe not quite good enough to make him an automatic pick.