The midfielder endured a frustrating time in England but, reinvigorated by a return to Russia, the Champions League clash with Borussia Dortmund offers him a chance for a swansong
By Andrew Wychrij
When Andrei Arshavin reflects on a career in football, there will be few memories that cast a smile quite as fondly across his impish face as that of a June evening in Basel nearly six years ago.
That night, the scene of Russia’s Euro 2008 quarter-final with the Netherlands, stands as the finest in the country’s post-Soviet footballing history. The Russians were magnificent, sealing a much-deserved 3-1 win with a verve and a swagger they have seldom shown since, and the brilliant Arshavin was the architect of the triumph as he led his side to the semi-finals and a place in the Team of the Tournament.
Six months later, having been previously courted by Barcelona and Tottenham, Russian fans held their breath as their hero neared a move abroad. Arsenal emerged as the successful suitors and, after a protracted transfer, in February 2009 Arshavin was able to proudly announce: “I am a Gooner.”
Arshavin’s Arsenal career
Certainly, much has changed since then. After once being regarded as a transfer-market coup by a delighted Arsene Wenger, Arshavin now finds himself back in St Petersburg after a disjointed spell in London, managing only seven appearances in his final season at the Emirates.
Branded a flop and accused of wasting his talents, there were even suggestions that the 32-year-old might end his career once his Arsenal contract expired last summer.
Those rumours proved unfounded and, while he may not be back to his Oranje-blitzing best, Arshavin has begun to demonstrate some of his old qualities on home soil.
“To be honest, I was sceptical about what level he’d be at when he returned,” Zenit assistant boss Vladislav Radimov told Russian sports daily Sport den’ za dnyom this February.
“But this Arshavin looks very assured, healthy. At the moment I think he’s Zenit’s strongest player – both in terms of his physical preparation and behaviour on the pitch. I’m very happy for him!”
While Radimov may not be the most impartial observer, his sentiments have been widely echoed as calls for Arshavin to be included in Russia’s squad for this summer’s World Cup have gathered pace.
The forward has not played for his country since being stripped of the captaincy after telling fans their disappointment at the lacklustre Euro 2012 showing “was their problem”. The fact his performances are putting him in a position to overcome that scandal says a lot in itself.
This season, Arshavin has, at last, been showing signs of the form that first brought him to the world’s attention. In Zenit’s 4-1 victory over Krylya Sovetov in September, he was at his decisive best, notching two assists as he linked superbly with star forward Hulk.
Yet the question remains as to why he failed to replicate this kind of form consistently in England. The Russian’s record with Arsenal was not especially poor (31 goals in 144 games in total) but, considering his vast ability, he was an undoubted disappointment.
Some have sought to absolve Arshavin of guilt in his failure to reach the heights expected of him, suggesting that Wenger’s tendency to play him out of his preferred position – coupled with a lack of faith in his ability – was the player’s downfall. More compelling, however, is the idea that, for all his skill, Arshavin lacks the necessary mental aptitude for the very highest level.
“I don’t regret anything, but I had to leave,” he told Sport Ekspress when asked about his final few months in England.
“To train even though you know you won’t play – it is psychologically difficult. I nearly suffered depression, but I didn’t because I’m mentally strong. The monotony of life there was crushing me.”
You can sympathise with Arshavin’s unfortunate plight but this self-pitying response is equally frustrating. There is a sense that he is unwilling to add hard graft to his abundant technique, lacking a single-minded mental toughness found among the very best. His weight and fitness were a concern at Arsenal and suggested a player with a lackadaisical attitude towards his duties.
Though capable of genius, Arshavin is erratic, drifting in and out of matches when he is most needed. For all his brilliance in Euro 2008, it is worth remembering his anonymous performance as Russia fell to a 3-0 defeat to Spain in the semis. He is mercurial by nature.
The criticism currently levelled at Mesut Ozil has uncanny parallels with Arshavin’s experience. The Gunners will hope – and expect – that Ozil does not follow the same path as Arshavin but, to avoid repeating past mistakes, an element of patience and acceptance is required – luxuries Arshavin never really enjoyed.
At 32, Arshavin has left his peak behind. He is playing his best football in a number of years but the demands of the Russian Premier League cannot compare to those of England. But perhaps he is not finished just yet.
It would be a great shame for Arshavin’s legacy to be criminally wasted. A dominant performance against Borussia Dortmund would not put all the doubts to rest but it would at least allow us one more chance to enjoy a player with undeniable – if enigmatic – quality.