In Defense of: Andrei Arshavin

Good morning to all my fellow Arsenalists, from a sunny but bitter cold New York. I had intended initially to make this my normal Friday roundup and look ahead, but after Sean's last post (if you haven't read it yet, I encourage you to do so) rather eloquently and almost challengingly introduced this new segment on the blog, and since I couldn't ask for a much better time to state my case for this player, this will be the initial entry of The Modern Gooner Presents: In Defense of...

Andrei Arshavin

When the little Russian arrived in a snow-covered London in early February after a long and rather protracted transfer saga to bring him in from Zenit St. Petersburg, none of us really knew what to expect from him. I personally had been impressed at the time when Russian national team manager Guus Hiddink (at the time managing Chelsea as well) said that Arsenal didn't know how good a player we'd signed at the time. It wasn't long until we found out just how good Arshavin was, dominating Blackburn at home and later scoring four goals in a legendary performance at Anfield. Safe to say, at the end of the 2008-2009 season, there wasn't a single Arsenal fan alive who had a negative thing to say about our diminutive Cossack ace.

Just shy of two years from Arshavin's arrival at Arsenal, and the worm had most certainly turned. From the beginning of this season, fans had been absolutely RIDING our AA battery, questioning his work ethic, weight, defending, haircut, what have you. I will say that to SOME of these claims, there was some legitimacy. So before I begin my defense in earnest, let's analyze some of these accusations, shall we?

1) He's got a bit of a belly.

Far be it for me to have a go at anyone for carrying more weight than perhaps they should, but if I'm fairly honest, at the beginning of the season, Andrei looked as though he'd done as much eating and drinking over the summer as I had done, and I'm far larger than he is. Okay, fair enough; he hadn't done as much fitness work over the summer as he should have done. He still put in a full training camp pre-season and was fit enough to play 90 minutes from the start of the season, which is more than I can say for myself or most of our readers.

2) He doesn't work hard enough in defense.

I have to say I not only acknowledge this aspect of Andrei's game but I have taken him to task on the blog because of it. Too often, Arshavin fails to track back, leaving Gael Clichy or Kieran Gibbs completely exposed on the left side of defense as several players stream down that side and making it incredibly difficult for the fullbacks and center-halves to cover, particularly on the break. Andrei must incorporate the defensive side of things into his game on a consistent basis, for otherwise he leaves the entire team's efforts at risk.

But there's more than meets the eye here. To wit, when we signed Arshavin from Zenit, his role had previously only been as a #10, a center-forward lying withdrawn behind the striker. Typically, there isn't much to do defensively in this role, allowing the player to play almost exclusively in the opposition's half and trouble their defenders even as his team is attempting to win the ball back. So for the largest portion of his footballing life, Arshavin had been able to shirk defensive responsibility because very little had ever been asked of him. One would logically point out that two years should be more than ample time for a player to have made this adjustment to the defensive responsibilities of a wing player, and I find it difficult to argue that point. He should. But before we condemn him, I'd like to remind us all that Robert Pires was even less defensive minded than Arshavin is, yet no one ever really gave him stick about it. Arshavin, like Pires, is more an artist than a laborer; we must accept him for what he does for us, not for what he doesn't.

3) He's lazy.

I suppose this could be tied in with the weight issue, but I view this as a separate complaint. People often accuse AA of disappearing for wide stretches of games, only cropping up in a couple of spots to pull off some trickery (successfully, more often than not). But he was branded thusly despite currently having 5 Premier League goals and 9 assists (good enough for 4th). This lazy claim I put down to a trick of the memory, and I'll explain why. When you think back to watching Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry for Arsenal, what do you recall? The moments when they took over the match, where they took the ball at their feet and worked skill so sublime that your jaw dropped, correct? Most of us fail to remember the long stretches of matches where Bergkamp was basically absent from those same matches, when Henry looked sullen and nothing was coming off for him. Those are the realities of the past that we don't look back on because we can't look back fondly. Who deliberately remembers the uneventful? We hold those players in high esteem because what we remember most is them lifting trophies. Perhaps the lazy label will strip off of Andrei Arshavin once he holds some silverware as well. One would hope so. Perhaps he could run harder and do more. But if you're going to call Doctor Drei lazy, you'd have to tar Dennis and Thierry with the same brush for the same reasons, and I don't think any of us are willing to do that.

Others like to state that he only shows up for "big" matches, that he's not committed to the team, that he hates London and wants to go home, that he bitches about taxes. Allow me to rebutt these in order: 1) Why is it a bad thing that he shows up on the big stage when you need him most, more than against West Ham? 2) There is absolutely no evidence to back up this claim, so no need to argue against a baseless claim; 3) You read and believe everything you read in tabloids? So you legitimately think there is a bat-boy on the run from the government too, and that a man has given birth to a baby (and no, that Asian lady who got a sex change to become a man doesn't count)? Go stand in the corner for 30 minutes and think about your behavior; 4) Invented by his former agent Dennis Lachter and run by tabloids, again. Join your friends in the corner, the blog will still be here when you get back. I'll wait.

The truth is that all of these idiosyncracies about Arshavin's game and his personality were accepted without much grumbling until this fall when his form took a perceptible dip. Of course, when a player needs that extra boost from the fans is when so many Arsenal fans decided to twist the knife in a bit, fair or not. But we've watched over the past few months as that bit of magic that would spark our little Russian to create something truly spectacular. As his confidence faded, he spent less time trying to beat fullbacks on the dribble and dance into the box than he did just trying to run around them to get off a simple cross. Which led to some to question whether old age had set in on Arshavin and robbed him, in the course of a few weeks, of his ability. Yet still the boos rained on Arshavin, at the ground and in the pub alike. I'm in no way questioning Sean's or any fan's right to question a player's ability, to shake a fist at heaven or cry out in anguish at the maddeningly frustrating parts of an Arsenal player's game. We're not denizens of a totalitarian regime, we're Arsenal supporters. But when you start booing or ripping on a player before a ball's been kicked, you cease to be a supporter and begin to be a detractor.

It's the immediacy with which the entire world changes for a football fan that sparked this series of debates, at least for me. We're so convinced after a few weeks of down performances that a player is now complete and utter shit, that we can't look ahead, that indeed the sun not just might but in all probability will rise again, that a few weeks' time, in the grand scheme even of football, is not very long at all. Which is why right now, I'm probably better placed than my compatriots in presenting my argument, as Andrei Arshavin appears to finally be emerging like a five-foot-four Russian phoenix from the ashes of his rather more rubbish performances this season and presenting something resembling the Arshavin we were all so thrilled with in the spring of 2009. His substitute appearance against Everton on Tuesday absolutely changed the game for Arsenal and our attack began to click on, and he scored our first goal by doing what he does best, making the right run, timing things perfectly and finishing coolly. He also had 2 assists in the Carling Cup semifinal against Ipswich, and appears now to have rediscovered his class. A player who's "shit," as I've heard him branded multiple times this season, wouldn't be capable of such heroics.

What my defense of Andrei Arshavin boils down to is a question of acceptance. Is he lazy, profligate with chances, lacking industry in defense, and possibly a bit pudgy? Yes, at least at times, on each count. But with those more negative parts of this package, you also get a player capable of creating a goal out of absolutely nothing, either by finding a teammate with an inch-perfect pass or by imposing his will on defenders and scoring it himself. And when we're much older men and women and looking back on these days and these players, the things they did, the matches they won and lost, we won't remember who did the tracking back or who gave the ball away so much as we'll remember this...