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Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Andrey Arshavin, the enigma.

After receiving constant criticism throughout this 2010/2011 season by pundits, the media, and most consistently by the Arsenal fans (culminating in the disgraceful booing he endured in the Leeds game at the weekend), I feel it's time to launch a passionate, well needed defence of North London's favourite Russian meerkat, Andrey Arshavin.

As a consequence of being addicted to Football Manager, I was already familiar with Arshavin's ability, and whilst the game does not replicate reality fully, it gives a vague indication, at least. However, it was watching Zenit St Petersburg’s march to the UEFA Cup (now Europa League) Final in 2008 when I really started paying attention to the mercurial playmaker. Combining pace, intricacy, intelligence, tenacity and a flawless technique, it became clear that Arshavin had developed into one of the continents most sought after players. Indeed, this was cemented with his performances in the Euro 2008 Championships Finals, and in particular the way in which he embarrassed a strong Dutch side.

Once the tournament had finished and Arshavin had been duly named in the Team of the Tournament, the interest from some of Europe's top clubs became official. This was represented by bids from Barcelona and Tottenham being rejected by Zenit on the grounds that they did not match their 22 million pounds estimation. Zenit's refusal to sell Arshavin ensured that the Russian captain would remain in his native homeland until the January Transfer Window reopened in 2009. To my and many Arsenal supporters' joy, the club decided to pursue the player, and memorably confirmed the deal in the snow twenty four hours after the transfer deadline had passed. Incredibly, Arsenal had managed to buy the sixth best player in the world for thirteen to fifteen million pounds (the fee remains undisclosed), a fraction of his market value.

Surprisingly, Arshavin adapted to the English game immediately, and his first half season at the club was an instant success, as aptly demonstrated by his unforgettable four goals against Liverpool at Anfield. He seemed on course to be a universally popular figure at the club, not just for his masterful football playing ability, but also for his boyish charm and hilarious website. Arshavin answers questions from fans in an honest, blunt way, and this is most emphatically portrayed by the way in which he told a young teenage female fan to 'listen to her father' after she had sought Arshavin's advice about her dad not letting her play football purely due to the fact that she was a girl.

Fast forward two years, and the little Russian maestro has somehow infuriated the majority of Arsenal fans, with their criticism centering on his careless possession of the ball, combined with his refusal to 'work hard' and 'track back' for the team. The growing vitriol against Arshavin has prompted the Arsenal Manager, Arsene Wenger, to plea for patience and to remind everyone that he is a 'risk player', and that sometimes these risks do not come off. It would be fair to say that the player is not playing his best, but the booing by the fans and their constant criticism of him is despicable. For someone who has supposedly been off form throughout the season, Arshavin has still managed seven goals (joint fourth in the squad behind Nasri, Chamakh and Walcott), and contributed thirteen assists (the second most in the Premier League, and the most in the Arsenal side). So much for not working for the team, eh?

Of course it can be argued that statistics do not tell the whole story, but they certainly underline his importance to the side. One thing that these statistics do not show are the numerous opportunities that Arshavin sets up for players, and the number of times that he gets into goal scoring situations and is often denied by the excellence of opposing Goalkeepers.

Why Arshavin has been singled out for so much criticism recently remains a mystery. Could it be that the sometimes fickle Arsenal fans are looking for a scapegoat, someone to blame when the desired result goes the other way? Or is it down to a more legitimate reason, such as attempting to pinpoint why the player has not found his true, mesmerising form this season? Maybe the emergence of Samir Nasri as a clinical, influencer of games has meant that the statistical significance of his colleague has paled in comparison with the Frenchman's goal scoring exploits. Despite the fact that Arshavin has failed to live up to his very high expectations so far this season, there is no doubting his effectiveness, efficiency, and fundamental importance to Arsenal.

Once Arshavin does finally recapture his terrific form of previous seasons, then he is going to be a truly frightening proposition for other team. As the age old clique goes, form is temporary, class is permanent, and it is only a matter of time before the Russian rediscovers the love of the fans.
Could Arshavin's redemption come against Barcelona in the Champions League next month? Let's hope so.

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