With the European Championships now fast approaching, it is worth casting our minds back to the previous one in 2008. One game that sticks in my memory was the quarter-final where Russia met Holland. The highly fancied Dutch were favourites but the Russians had been playing some fine football and had Guus Hiddink, which always has to be considered a good thing. Russia came through the tie after scoring twice in extra-time led by their diminutive talisman Andrey Arshavin. Throughout Euro 2008, Arshavin was brilliant, driving Russia forward and picking holes in defences almost at will. It added to a stellar year for him as he had played a crucial role in Zenit St Petersburg’s UEFA cup triumph. Within months he had become Arsenal’s record signing and would soon blast four past Pepe Reina.
That tournament and year is always worth remembering that when thinking about how Arshavin’s career has progressed. Arshavin was and probably still is a fantastic player, capable of the close control and awareness of space to rival a Messi or a Ronaldo. While I am of course not suggesting that his performances in recent seasons have reached anywhere near the level of those two leviathans of modern football, for me, he could have. Arsène Wenger agreed. When interviewed in 2009 he replied when asked about Arshavin’s promise “Arshavin has the potential to be compared with the likes of Lionel Messi or Kaka”.
How could a player once put in those haughty brackets, be now cast off in a loan move that is seen by all but the most hardcore of the Russian’s Arsenal fan club as one that you don’t return from?
It seems a strange move all-round. The club have had a bad string (can a seventh consecutive season still be considered a bad string?) of injuries this season. Sure Rosicky’s return to grace and Oxlaide-Chamberlain’s sparks of promise provide an element of cover for the time being but it will only take a niggling hamstring problem or two, an unlucky leg break or possibly a mysterious illness that each week leads the respective player to being about two weeks away from fitness and Wenger will be calling on the youth team again.
Wouldn’t a fully paid up international – albeit a flickering one – be a better bet? It’s not like he hasn’t done it in the past. His ability to try the difficult ball and create chances has been remarkably consistent. This may amaze you but he scored 10 goals and made 17 assists last season. Not bad for a player starting largely from the bench or stuck out on the left hand side of Arsenal’s midfield.
Which brings me nicely on to my next point. Arsenal play a formation that has one particularly important creative player. This is the third central midfielder, roaming in front of two players providing cover: what became known as the Fabregas role.
Arshavin had played in roughly this position for Russia and Zenit. Unfortunately for Arshavin, Fabregas continued to play in the role named after him and he got shipped out to the left. When Fabregas left in the summer, Arshavin must have thought that finally he would be given an opportunity to be the lynchpin of the team; a player who can exert influence all over the final third. I do wonder why Wenger did not give Arshavin ten or so games in his favourite position to see if he could not return to his form of 2008.
And so I lament the loss of Arshavin. I will miss his dribbling, his ability to shoot from outside of the area (a unique attribute for long periods of Arsenal’s recent past), his bizarre website responding to questions from his fans but most of all I regret seeing the waste of a prodigious talent not be given the chance to fulfil his potential.