The Arsenal Column

Arsenal Analysis and Tactics. All views expressed are those of Pat Rice. (Disclaimer: they are actually not his words).

Andrey Arshavin delights and frustrates in equal measure

There are two great philosophical debates that divide the football world; whether to play attractive football or to favour a more pragmatic approach and how to jude how good a player is. While the former is more or less answered by the league format biasing towards a “winning at all costs” mentality the latter is much more subjective. For example, I would rate Ronaldinho as the best player of the decade gone by because of his frequent spectacular performances and one-man showings but he only performed at his peak for four – albeit fantastic – years. Zinedine Zidane may be the widely held option as he did it more consistently however Ronaldinho thrived due to his unorthodoxy and for that reason, he will have stuck out more. Zidane, though, may be the purists choice because he brought great visceral joy in his balletic movements. Either way, judging and thus comparing talent is an ambiguous art.

Is it goals that you use to judge a player; the medals they won or their effectiveness in the international stage, a measure which straight-away puts those players born in an average nation at a disadvantage? What about taking individual attributes such as tackling and passing and assigning a score and weighting system to each one thus arriving a total at the end? Paul Ince used one for The Mirror’s pull out paper, Score, to settle the argument on who’s better; Steven Gerrard or Frank Lampard? Conveniently, Ince arrived at a tie. Of course, there can be no answer and rather, you use a number of factors to decide on the outcome although that method is unlikely to remain consistent. Put simply, it is an intuitive feeling that differs from person to person.

I ask this because there is one player at Arsenal for which this particularly applies to; Andrey Arshavin.

The Russian was brought to Arsenal in 2009 as a marquee signing; an antithesis to their youth development project and in that half a season that he arrived in, he single handedly qualified Arsenal for the Champions League. His 6 goals and 9 assists offered a tantalising vision of what he could bring when he finally acclimatises to the English league and most importantly, the “Arsenal way” if given a full season in the colours of red and white. However, by his own admission he has failed to live up to the hype, only delivering his explosive talents in sporadic moments. This season, he says confidence has dented his form although in recent matches, he is showing again that he can be an important player for Arsenal. Yet, this follows a brief period on the bench which coincided with Arsenal’s best spell of form from the middle of December to the end of February and it is likely that should Arsenal’s preferred eleven (Szczecny – Sagna, Koscielny, Djourou, Clichy – Song, Wilshere – Walcott, Fabregas, Nasri – van Persie) remain fit at once, an impact substitute would be his default role again.

Andrey Arshavin divides because he is a maverick; an individual who frustrates and delights at the same time. He is not one to fall into the collective endeavour, partly because he lacks the stamina to track back and partly because he just doesn’t believe he needs to. Arshavin speaks of the same vision of football he and Wenger have but the Frenchman has yet to convince the Russian of doing his bit defensively. At least, Arshavin realises the necessity of pressing up the pitch although by the time he closes down the first opponent, he effectively renders himself out of the defensive phase should they evade his presence.

Those Andrey Arshavin apologists point to his statistics as his main saving grace and it is true, they are very impressive. “If you look at the assists in the Premier League, Arshavin is the best,” said Wenger. This season in 43 games in all competitions, Arshavin has scored 10 goals and made 17 assists.  However, are goals and assists enough to judge the success of the player? It should be, especially as the saying goes, “goals win games” and Arshavin has contributed to his fair share. But this time the statistics are against him. In his 21 starts in the league this term, Arsenal have won 52% of their matches and in the seven he doesn’t feature or arrives from the bench, The Gunners have won 75%. Of course, you can point to the sparse amount of matches without him which makes the latter statistic more impressive but there is a correlation here. Of Arsenal’s six matches between December and March (Chelsea, Birmingham City, Manchester City, West Ham United, Wigan Athletic and Stoke City) where they found their best form with their fantastic eleven, their win percentage is 83%. And in the three more league games in that period where the only changes made were enforced, the win percentage was still at an impressive 77%; a figure that is very close to the 75% win percentage without Arshavin. It is true, however, that the bulk of Arshavin’s matches were at the beginning of the season when the team was often impacted by injuries but perhaps it is significant that Arsenal soon found their fluency when Arshavin was not a regular in the team anymore.

Arshavin says his style has been “altered” and is now “more effective, but less sparkling” but is that just a way to cover up his waning talents and failure to adapt? Certainly that is the view in the Russian press following their recent 0-0 draw with Armenia with Sovetsky Sport columnist Yuri Tsybanev suggesting he is now being picked on reputation alone. Jonathan Wilson continues to note the scathing attacks directed at Arshavin by writing in the Guardian that former USSR defender Yevgeny Lovchev has said that “Arsène Wenger continues to make encouraging noises about Arshavin only to make sure his value doesn’t drop too much. Meanwhile the satirist Mikhail Grushevsky called Arshavin “a sacred cow” who must be replaced.”

It has become evident then, that Arshavin cannot rely on numbers alone to back up his case. It pains me to say it but the Russian has simply failed to integrate himself to the Arsenal style as well as he should have. His passing statistics are particularly poor; yes he is capable is sprinkling a bit of magic that can create a moment out of nothing while he has also delivered at key moments this season and last season that have gone unnoticed. But that may mean falling into the same trap; that direct is more better when, tactically Arsenal may be better off playing more shorter. His passing percentage is at a disappointingly low 70% and the rhetoric that his position encourages more killer passes look decidedly thin when comparing it to the 80% pass success of Arsenal’s best through-ball specialist, Cesc Fábregas. All this must take into account also that Arshavin plays in that all to selfish role of the wide forward and one that is heavily subsidised to cater for his vices. As Roberticus of Santapelota writes in his overview of Brazilian football “Where have all the wingers gone? the position is “undoubtedly the most selfish of roles in modern football. Selfish, I say, not as a character judgement, but rather in the sense that such a style of play carries with it so many potential rewards and comparatively little concomitant responsibility.” Indeed, how long can he be excused of not tracking back thus exposing poor Gael Clichy due to the possibility that he may create a goalscoring opportunity?

However, there is a charm about Andrey Arshavin that makes him irresistible at times. His plump cheeks and minimalist haircut indicates an innocence in his play; a player who is much in tune with his artistic freedom and takes infinite pleasure in the simple act of playing football. Watch his face before every goal and you will see his tongue reveal itself from his mouth in excitement. It was quite surprising to hear that the criticism of his form affected his confidence as much as it did because here was a player seemingly so free of fear and that was indicated by his style. Free spirited and ambitious, every touch on the ball gets you off your seat because there is an anticipation that he may produce something special. He more often than not does although with his unpredictability does also come frustration. Loose balls are aplenty with Arshavin, as is the frequent “stuck in the mud” routine whenever a pass goes beyond him. Perhaps we are being a bit harsh on Arshavin but there were signs this season that even the most ardent of fans were becoming disgruntled by his style.

How do you judge Andrey Arshavin’s worth to the team? Is it his numbers; his unpredictable brilliance or how involved he is in the team’s attacks? Because with Arshavin, it’s seems it’s a question which will forever remain unanswered.

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13 Responses to “Andrey Arshavin delights and frustrates in equal measure”

  1. JOHAN SWE says:

    I think a lot of the critisism of Arshavin is very unfair. He certainly does not have the best stamina in the squad and he might have lost his spark but what an important player this is for Arsenal, one of few that has won something, (UEFA cup, league title with Zenit). Closing down and tracking back is not his strongest side but who can blame him if he can not do better? Ideal would be to play him behind van Persie in a 4-4-2 but 4-5-1 is the system every top club are using nowadays. He is a cultfigure and I agree with Arsene, just look at the stats.

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    Arsenal Column Reply:

    @JOHAN SWE, It’s a fair comment although the numbers are not exactly with him. The pass percentages indicate someone who is still very much an individual. The win ratio also is better without him displaying that he actually may not be all that indispensable. His role is not his preferred position but he has played there a lot and is very subsidised so he has no excuse really. He can produce magic but football is also very holistic and while Wenger encourages expression, Arshavin remains very much a maverick. Capable of great moments but also just as likely to frustrate.

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  2. Jay says:

    Stop moaning about Arshavin try having Pavlyuchenko hes exactly the same but in a much more vital position, both have soo much natural ability but are lazy and often look like they cant be asked, Maybe its a Eastern European thing, Shevchenko, Zhirkov, Rebrov all struggled.

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  3. zoi says:

    I think the fact that he doesn’t track back doesnt matter much. It’s the fact that he contribute very little to attack too; certainly a shadow of his formerself.

    (am not Gunners btw)

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  4. Behemoth says:

    Agree with Johan – Shava gets far more grief than he deserves. He frustrates at times, but he does track back more than he used to and his stats are excellent.

    He blows hot and cold more than most players certainly, but that’s partly due to the risks he takes. Compare him with T-Rok and you see how good he is.

    By the way, not wishing to be a pedant, but just for info, ‘shorter’ and ‘better’ (three para’s from the end) are comparative versions of short and best. You don’t need to put ‘more better’ and ‘more shorter’. More is also a comparative, so it is only duplicating the work of the ‘ter’ endings and doesn’t add anything.

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    Arsenal Column Reply:

    @Behemoth, Thanks for pointing that out; shouldn’t have escaped the edit.

    But isn’t also shown that his stats are not as impressive as they may have been in the grand scheme of things. Lower win ratio, pass completion and great freedom counts against him compared to other players.

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    Behemoth Reply:

    @Arsenal Column, Yes, fair points certainly but I’m always a bit wary of looking at how the team does with a player in/out of it as being too significant. Obviously, it’s a guide but it can be misleading.

    There’s so many other factors involved (opposition, other players in the team, etc) that I usually prefer to focus on someone’s individual stats. For Shava, the 10 goals and 17 assists for his minutes on the pitch are excellent. His pass completion is, as you say, poor but he does take risks with his passing. When they come off, he looks brilliant; when they don’t, he can look a bit of a mug. He could play safer but I’d bet he wouldn’t have 17 assists if he did.

    I agree that he shouldn’t be in our first XI, but I just feel that compared to, say, Rosicky, he gets some harsh treatment from fans. If I remember from your Twitter, T-Rok’s stats for the team’s win percentage with and without him are actually better than Shava’s but I would say that Andrey is clearly the better player.

    Anyway, good to debate and an interesting article. Cheers

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    Arsenal Column Reply:

    @Behemoth, You make your points very well and I agree, he has his worth.

    But there are also some myths about Arshavin’s pass success rate. Much of his misplaced passes are indeed rudimentary ones, square ones which he should be completing. I should have posted some of his chalkboards; I may do later actually but he can be very inaccurate.

    I commend for his determination to try and execute the key pass; it’s part of Arsenal’s game but there needs to be an all-roundedness too which he lacks at times.

    I agree also that criticism on him can be harsh. Maybe those people are too risk-averse. Certainly I see the use in Tomas Rosicky’s ability to knit the play and keep things flowing. But on days where there isn’t someone else to thread the killer passes, he can be shown up. The same case maybe applies to Arshavin but the other way round.

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  5. Dakota says:

    I love this blog site and all the articles that are written and posted. Thank you! The first question posed in this piece was the different ways you play soccer and how you judge how ‘good’ a player is. But I think most players make a good name for themselves through their passion and dedication shown through their skills and output during the game.

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  6. novicehack says:

    In my opinion, Arshavin n Cesc are two players who can provide directness to Arsenal’s (over) elaborate passing. Cesc is certainly a more complete player, but Arshavin can dribble and run on to defenders without losing his timing to release the ball, whether it’s accurate or not.

    Directness is something that’s missing from Arsenal when both Arshavin n Cesc do not play. Maybe this is why Arsenal looks like playing without (lack of) urgency.

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  7. Matt says:

    On the Ronaldinho subject. What is the real difference between Ronaldinho circa 2005 and Ronaldinho circa 2010? Did his wonderful vision, touch, control, and passing ability really diminish? I would actually argue that it didn’t, at least not to the degree that everybody says. On his day, Ronaldinho was still an unplayable match winner, even for Milan. Then what did change? He became a lot less consistent, primarily because of his physical deterioration. The surges through the defense were gone. His game became about fancy flicks rather than beating defenders. Men that would have been left in the dust in the past were now getting second chances to tackle him. Instead of beating 2 men quickly, he now had to beat those same 2 men twice each. When his touch was less than perfect, he was anonymous. His frightening combination of ability and acceleration was no more.
    Arshavin has the same problems. On his day, he has the ability to influence a match like few other players in the world. However, he doesn’t have the work rate or physical conditioning to dominate games week after week (contrast him to players like Nasri, Robben, Nani, Ronaldo. They have similar ability, but they are much more consistent). When Ronaldo’s touch deserts him, he can still outrun or overpower someone, or flop and draw a bunch of fouls. Ronaldo has as many 9 out of 10′s as Arshavin, but Ronaldo’s weak games are much better than Arshavin’s. Arshavin is very similar to Cassano in that respect

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    The Brain Reply:

    @Matt, Hi,

    His acceleration has surely decreased which is one thing because, that more than anything else, made him unplayable. It’s a similar case for Arshavin although for both players, there’s a convincing case that psychologically and confidence-wise, they are not quite as assured so that brings in itself lots of inaccuracies. So Ronaldinho, in trying to compensate and find his form, often finds himself overcomplicating his game and taking one too many dribbles, tricks etc.

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  8. drewtwo says:

    Considering that both George Graham and Arsene Wenger have built squad upon squad of teams tactically setup as collectives rather individuals, embodying the club moto to a T, I loathe seeing Arshavin in the starting eleven.

    Firstly I’d like to address the idea that the solution is to place him centrally behind van Persie in a 442. This a complete waste of van Persie and Fabregas, who are both far superior players than Arshavin in that position and not only have Arshavins best performances and seasons come playing in an inside-left position (not all that unlike his current position) but his best Arsenal performances saw him playing even wider than he is currently.

    It’s an idea that also makes no sense when you consider his qualities as a player. Technically he’s no better than Walcott or Bendtner, who are regularly berated for heavy touches, wild shots and getting the ball caught in their feet but all equally apply to Arshavin albeit with the addition of some truly woeful attempts at easy passes and people want to put this guy in the middle?

    His saving grace is his ability to sow the seeds of doubt in a defenders mind, something Walcott and Bendtner have yet to develop – if they ever do – . With Arshavin it’s all a psychological battle with the fullback, the trait of the best impact players, the unpredictable enigma, will he go wide or between the fullback and centreback?

    He’s miles behind the required technical ability of van Persie, Nasri, Fabregas, Wilshere or Rosicky that’s needed to thrive as a playmaker.

    Secondly, We’ve seen time and again when the team put in strong, composed performances (e.g. Chelsea and Barcelona at the Grove) they look threatening offensively and resolute defensively. When players aren’t focussed and give room to the opponents, as they did against Blackburn and Sunderland we look average, blunt and shaky.

    Yet despite rarely putting in the defensive shift required from him at this level, in this league, he can’t cope playing ninety minutes on a regular basis and when he does put in the appropriate shift he looks knackered after half-an-hour.

    If a club makes a strong (£10+ million) bid for him in the summer I think we should bite.

    - Victoria Concordia Crescit – There’s no room for mavericks here.

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