“That brilliant change of tack,” writes Vic Marks, “which can transform a career or the fortunes of a team, more often comes from happenstance than a sudden, piercing insight.” Five months ago, we might have said the same thing of Gervinho who, shorn of striking options at the club, was asked to spearhead Arsenal’s frontline.
Things started promisingly as Gervinho scored five goals in six games, and it looked like his heady unpredictability found its true calling. But then came that miss in front of a gaping goal in a League Cup tie against Bradford City. Since then, it’s hard to think what management technique might get Gervinho to rediscover his mojo. He went to Africa and was momentarily rallied by his team-mates before Ivory Coast crashed out of the Cup of Nations and when he returned to Arsenal, he was awful in another cup defeat, this time to Blackburn Rovers.
However, it’s hoped Gervinho’s performance in Arsenal’s 4-1 win over Reading on Saturday, where he scored one and created another two, brings about a permanent return of form. In part, Arsene Wenger acknowledges he needs to manage Gervinho better having shuffled him about left and right, and not returned him up front ever since this season. Because Gervinho is a vulnerable soul, who thrives from a hand on his shoulder, and shrivels at the slightest bit of negativity.
“Gervinho’s performance was very strong,” said Wenger after the win. “He was always dangerous. He always looked like he could score. He gave assists and scored. I believe that sometimes Gervinho has lost confidence because he played in a very negative atmosphere during a period. Strikers need confidence, and [with] his game, even more. He’s always taking the ball, going forward and provoking [the play]. Now he has found his confidence back, he’s a very dangerous player.”
Gervinho’s performance was nearly as good as Wenger described it. He ran at players and got in the box more, although you can’t help but get the feeling he was still a more confident player from being more productive. Yet, he still scored one goal and set-up two other goals that it’s hard not to be enthralled by the way Gervinho played.
Indeed, Gervinho now looks like he fits in the three behind Olivier Giroud whereas once he was a bit of an interloper, often attempting dribbles then cutting back in, then jerking forward again before flattering to deceive, in the process interrupting Arsenal’s passing. But here, he seamlessly blended in with Arsenal’s style, interchanging positions with Tomas Rosicky and Santi Cazorla to destroy Reading FC.
Arsenal began the game with their usual 4-2-3-1 formation but quickly, where the players were assigned roles on the team-sheet, they switched positions and increasingly Santi Cazorla and Gervinho, who started wide left and right respectively, got into central areas. Encouragingly, this had no adverse effect on Arsenal’s defensive organisation which was exemplary all match, the team pressing up the pitch and getting tight to Reading’s ball-players. Becausse whenever the forward players switched positions, they stuck there until a stoppage of play allowed them to switch back.
It led to a wonderfully fluid, yet cohesive attacking display with each player stamping their quality in their own way. Firstly, Mikel Arteta and Aaron Ramsey provided a solid base for those attacking players to flourish as the double-pivot and Olivier Giroud, at the tip of the front four, was the target-man to bump one-touch passes off. In between, Rosicky, Cazorla and Gervinho showed great spacial awareness to profit from the spaces each of them vacated. Cazorla drifted infield, Rosicky went out wide and Gervinho buzzed around the two artists. So good was the interchange between the three that at one point, it wasn’t obvious who was playing where. Arsenal too easily got into the final third, in the space between Reading’s midfield and defence, with Gervinho showing improved variety to his play to profit.
Certainly, Wenger realised that Gervinho’s pace was unsettling Reading so much so that he encouraged him to keep on roaming inside so that Arsenal could kill the game off before the half-time whistle. It was equally to Gervinho’s credit and detriment that Arsenal led, and only led, 1-0 at the break. That wasn’t to matter much longer, however, as he instantly created Arsenal’s second after the interval, passing for Cazorla to caress home and later, the third for Giroud. Mikel Arteta completed the rout from the spot.
Not just from Gervinho, this performance continued the impressive progress of Arsenal since their first-leg Champions League defeat to Bayern Munich. Indeed, progress at this stage of the season is always treated with a little bit of suspicion. Because a run this late in the season seemingly comes without the same pressures and the drawn-out consistency that a league competition supposedly tests.
And certainly, the goal Arsenal conceded in their 4-1 win over Reading was not unlike the type of goal they have conceded before this season – a cross from wide with little pressure on the taker and opponent stealing in before the defence – that things might unravel again.
But that was a brief aberration and most pleasingly, Arsenal are playing like a team again. In that sense, it’s not too dissimilar to the way they ended last season chasing for a Champions League place. But that run was elevated by the performances of a couple of key individuals; namely Robin van Persie and Tomas Rosicky. Certainly this time, Santi Cazorla continues to wield such a large influence on the current squad that to think that he went through a blip of-sorts mid-way through the season is probably not that he played massively below par; it’s that his team-mates weren’t on the same wavelength. But good coaching and improved focus is always more sustainable than a few very good players playing above the rest, and that’s what Arsenal are showing right now.