Less sympathetic Arsenal commentators describe Theo Walcott as the emblematic player of the Emirates era. An expensive show of faith in potential unrealised, occasional glimpses of promise punctuated by yawning stretches of injury and incompetence. He gives you just enough to keep you engaged, to convince yourself that there is a filling beneath the layers of puff pastry, but always disappoints you in the end. Basically, he’s a terrible flirt- all tickle and no slap.
Personally, I look upon Tomas Rosicky as the quintessential adumbration of the Emirates age- fabulous to watch, but ultimately fragile. In his sporadic periods of fitness, it is easy to see why he was such a popular player with the Arsenal faithful. Lithe, but forceful. Fast, but graceful. His style- see ball, get ball, move ball, move arse- was simple enough for us slack jawed terrace folk to understand, but technical enough to satisfy a sophisticate like Arsene Wenger.
At times, to see him move perpetually through the gears was to watch football’s answer to Capoeira. Capoeira is a martial art disguised as a dance, invented by slaves to conceal self-defence training from unsuspecting slave masters. A martial art disguised as a dance- a pertinent metaphor for the Czech’s style- a perfect marriage of fire and skill. His was a furious spectacle, conducted at break neck speed.
His limber running style put one in mind of a man running through a field of landmines, the constant expectation that the ground beneath him might give way at any moment, or that a sudden, brutal change of direction might be required at short notice. Given his frantic manner, it is perhaps unsurprising that his hamstrings were worn down to little more than hamthreads as his career progressed.
Rosicky was a perfect conduit for Arsenal’s style. For a start, a passing game needs to be played at speed to be effective and Tomas provided a welcome shot of adrenaline into Arsenal’s artistry. Nowadays, Arsenal tend to have two types of offensive player- technicians (Özil, Cazorla, Iwobi) and bulldozers (Chamberlain, Alexis, Ramsey). Rosicky was able to demonstrate this alliance of ballet and ballistics in one composite body.
Effectively, he could cut through the chaff of the middle third, bounding towards Arsenal’s attackers with the ball like a bull terrier faithfully dropping a stick at its owner’s feet. Once in the final third, Rosicky had the technical wherewithal to move the ball around the opponents’ box at speed, taking as few touches as possible. His qualities made him the ideal secondary playmaker- a vital function in any Arsene Wenger team, as we have seen this season having been forced to play without one in the pregnant pause between Cazorla’s injury and the discovery of Alex Iwobi.
Every feeder needs a supply line and it is no coincidence that Rosicky consistently struck up such good partnerships with teammates- particularly those that operated in the deep water of the final third. Fabregas and Olivier Giroud were among his favoured beneficiaries, which aptly demonstrates Rosicky’s dual purpose at both ends of the final third. His two finest Arsenal goals also illustrate this nicely, the tiki taka effort against Sunderland and the fulminating volley against Spurs– both goals show a delicate alliance of finesse and force. Rosicky was a fetcher carrier in both the middle and the final third and that he spent so much of his decade at the club in the treatment room is one of the minor tragedies of the age of the Emirates.
The phrase ‘proper football man’ has become bastardised as a kind of semi-bigoted shorthand for a certain type of pundit to describe one of his mates. Really it ought to be reserved for people like Mikel Arteta. There are some players that make you happy that they represented your club. I think Arteta falls into that category. “This club is class,” the teary eyed captain sniffed in his final interview as an Arsenal player. It takes class to know class.
Like Yossi Benayoun, Arteta was procured in the trolley dash of August 31st 2011 and, like Benayoun, was a signing that was probably completed three or four years later than it ought to have been. Along with Yossi and Mertesacker, his signing proved crucial in steadying a rudderless ship, with the Gunners threadbare squad about to capsize. Phrases such as “model professional”, “positive influence” even “leader” abound Arteta from just about everyone that he has ever worked with. Just over a year ago, I wrote about my suspicions that Wenger favours quieter, team oriented players for coaching positions.
He offered Gilberto Silva, newly appointed Technical Director at Panathinaikos, a chance to pursue a coaching career at Arsenal. Gilles Grimandi is his chief scout in France, Steve Morrow oversees Arsenal’s Youth Development and Steve Bould is his assistant. There is a common thread binding these players and it permeates Arteta too. Publicly taciturn, conscientious and, as players, prepared to undertake unglamorous roles in service of the team ethic.
Arteta’s influence ‘in the dressing room’, to adopt popular vernacular, is well reported. This offers a kind of interesting paradox, because his value behind the scenes is an accepted truth, despite the fact that so few of us could have anything other than second or third hand knowledge of it. That it is so readily accepted tells you a lot about how Arteta carries himself. Pochettino and Guardiola have not worked with the Spaniard for many years, but both are keen to add him to their coaching staff.
That suggests that Arteta was demonstrating these qualities from a young age. Arsenal are haemorrhaging some intangible elements as Arteta and Rosicky drift off into the sunset; experience, professionalism, popularity, respect. Yet there is a risk of overlooking what they brought on the pitch and I would argue that a prime Arteta and Rosicky are two players that the Gunners missed the most this year (the self-evident need for a top class striker aside).
Arsenal needed a secondary playmaker, a set of jump cables capable of speeding up play, for which a fit Tomas Rosicky would have been just the tonic. The team has also lacked rhythm in their build up play from the back, especially in the wake of Santi Cazorla’s injury. Arteta’s on pitch influence was often underrated and underplayed. Not finding a midfielder of a similar ilk last summer was, to my mind, Wenger’s greatest error this season. (His fruitless pursuit of Benzema shows that he at least *tried* to fill the glaring striker gap).
Ultimately, Wenger was wrong to entrust valuable squad places to Arteta and Rosicky because they were physically incapable of making a meaningful contribution, as the captain himself admitted. A fit Arteta helped Arsenal establish a style- an identity. They are a passing team and, if Leicester has taught us anything this season, it is that playing to your strengths and being better at what you are already good at is a good blueprint for success.
Arsenal missed Arteta and Rosicky, or at least working facsimiles of them, as players first and foremost this season. In football’s increasingly malleable world, it is rare to find footballers that do anything other than just pass through clubs really. Arteta and Rosicky were fantastic players- better than they were given credit for. They were also exemplary custodians, standard bearers for ‘The Arsenal Way™.” Their departures leave a chasm, but both can claim to have made their mark and leave with everyone’s best wishes. Which is all they, or we, could have asked for.
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