He came. He scored. He helped saved a season. He charmed everyone with his “I am Goonar!”, his cheeky owl grin and high-pitched chuckle.
He has left. Overweight. Unhappy. Nobody particularly enamoured with his run-when-he-wants attitude, that owl scowl hidden beneath a scarf and a hat as he spent the final part of his Arsenal career on the bench, the jeers of that untimely substitution against United still echoing.
And all I can think of this morning is what a shame it is, and what an extraordinary club we have become to do this kind of business at this particular moment in time. His arrival in early 2009 was one of the most protracted, complicated, difficult pieces of transfer business the club has ever been involved in. It seemed to go on for ever and ever, and I guess there’s some irony that both his arrival and departure have taken place outside the normal transfer window deadlines.
Everyone wanted a defender to shore up Arsenal’s back-line as they scrapped for a top four finish. Instead Arsene Wenger bought a diminutive playmaker. Yeah, because that’d really help oh holy shit he’s just scored four at Anfield. Even that, as amazing as it was, appears now to have been a precursor for his entire Arsenal career and our club as a whole. Go to Anfield score four, kill Liverpool’s best chance of winning the league in years, score our 4th in the 90th minute and still find time to concede an even later equaliser (thanks, Yossi!).
At first he was all-action, a breath of fresh air, experience and quality and then, over time, he became a little less consistent, a little less intense, then mercurial, then simply lazy. He was never what you’d call a finely tuned athlete, he was out of breath after a few minutes of his debut against Sunderland, and you got the sense fitness wasn’t his favourite thing in the world.
Soon enough that was transmitted to his performances – I can’t even get Arshavin to track back when I’m playing FIFA – and it was a measure of how little it happened that when it did you almost felt like you were seeing something good rather than something that should have been the norm. This season has been miserable, yet still we had some moments. The goal against Swansea, the assist for van Persie at QPR to break them open, the assist for Henry’s final goal at Sunderland, but it would have been no surprise to anyone if summer had come and we decided to say ‘Thanks but it’s time now, Andrei.’
And we have every right to be critical of a man who has so much talent but so little application both in training and on the pitch. To see it wasted hurts because we know we’ll never have a smidgeon of that quality, and we’ve seen players make it at Arsenal before who made up for what they lacked in ability with sheer effort and a will to work for the team. Andrei Arshavin must take responsibility for that. Perhaps he was used to the cushy life at Zenit where the team worked for him and having to do the opposite here didn’t suit him.
Yet equally we have to question a system in which that was tolerated and allowed. Why was Arsene Wenger not able to manager him better, to get him fit properly, to make him lose the love handles, to draw the very best out of him? Arsene loves attackers, he loves players who can provide that moment, that spark of genius, and let’s be clear: when Arshavin first arrived he had that. Think of the goals, the finish against Blackburn, the strikes against Liverpool, the talent was obvious. Yet even a coach as indulgent to forwards as Arsene couldn’t do it. Maybe the indulgence is the problem.
Over time he has been diluted, the Arshavin who leaves is not the same one who arrived. Again, much of it is down to him, he is, and has been, lazy, but he was allowed to be when instead we should have been demanding more. To me he arrived like most new players, eager to show his worth, ready to work hard, and over time he realised he didn’t have to work that hard because he was never going to be held properly accountable.
There are those who suggest that we never got the best out of him because he was never played in his favourite position. Perhaps there’s something to that, but I don’t think he was being asked to do anything beyond his capabilities. Playing as part of a forward three seems fine for someone like Lionel Messi, for example, and even if he were more comfortable with a free role in the middle he was more than talented enough to flourish slightly wider than that. Maybe it was a contributory factor to his disenchantment but that doesn’t excuse it either.
As for the circumstances in which he has gone – they are, even by Arsenal’s standards, astonishing. Ahead of a must-win North London derby we’re letting one of our most creative players go when our transfer window has been closed for the best part of a month. Having gone through January without strengthening the squad, the bottom line is that we have weakened it in February when there’s no chance of bringing in a replacement.
Our ability to do things in the transfer market you just never thought possible is amazing, really. I know many will say Arshavin had contributed little this season, and that’s a fair point. It’s hard not to think that there’s more to this than meets the eye. Just a couple of weeks ago Arsene said:
I expect Arshavin to be here after February 24 and that is clear.
It seemed as much a message to player himself than anything else, yet here we are on February 25th and he is gone. Maybe the reaction to the United substitution played a part, maybe he’s been agitating behind the scenes to get out ahead of Euro 2012 and the way we dress up the announcement as if we’re doing him a favour rankles somewhat. Maybe the best way for him to prepare for 2012 was to play well and train well for Arsenal, maybe instead of doing him a favour we should have demanded more from him.
I guess we’ll just have to speculate until the truth of it becomes clearer, but even by Arsenal’s current standards it is impossible not to look at this as another example of confused, directionless management from top to bottom. After a summer during which our transfer business was rightly pilloried it looks, on the face of it, as if nothing has been learned. The timing of this loan when we have so much to fight for is baffling.
It’s not so much that he’s gone that’s the issue, but how and when. I’m totally with anyone who questions his form, his work-rate and everything else, but with so much to play for and so little creativity in this team, I would have preferred to keep him until the summer, because with this Arsenal team you just never know who will be needed and when.
Still, we’ll have the moments. We’ll always have the moments. The Blackburn goal, last season’s winner against Barcelona, long range efforts at United and Liverpool (couldn’t we have kept him even for that game?), and the 4th goal in the 4-4 against Liverpool is right up there with my favourite Arsenal goals of all time. Look at him run, busting a gut to get there, and I defy anyone to watch it (45mb download) and not get goosebumps.
In the end though, the overriding feeling is one of a talent wasted, a player who could have been so much more, who should have left this club as something of a hero rather than a cartoon pastiche of the player who arrived that snowy, I Am Goonar day. It’s a shame it came to this. For all his laziness and the frustration felt by his lack of application, I liked him, as a player and a character. In an increasingly bland game he had something a bit special about him.
And given the circumstances in which it has happened, it feels like the right decision made at the wrong time. Do it January, bring in a replacement. Do in the summer, you have to time to likewise. Doing it in February, just before a game against Sp*rs, I’m not sure of the message it sends. Some will say it’s ruthless, that we showed we won’t tolerate indolence, others will suggest we’ve simply admitted defeat over a player we couldn’t properly manage.
He was Goonar, he is Goner.