Andrey Arshavin: The Enigma

WIGAN ENGLAND - DECEMBER 29: Andrey Arshavin of Arsenal celebrates after scoring his goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Wigan Athletic and Arsenal at DW Stadium on December 29 2010 in Wigan England. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

 Andrey Arshavin is just one of those players. You know, the ones that have immense talent but appear to waste it. The Premier League is littered with such players (Alex Hleb, for example, whose career moves weren't his best choices). Except, on the face of it, he's having a good year, with 7 goals and 11 assists, which is the highest at the club. With Cesc Fabregas recently missing, he took a lead role in creating, starring against Aston Villa, with a goal, assist and heavily involved in the third, and again against Fulham where he had an assist and was heavily involved in Nasri's second. The good, though, has been overshadowed by the bad, and many times this year Arshavin has looked disinterested, sluggish, and has also been disappointing, being poor defensively, giving the ball away with simple passes, and not scoring when he should.

Wigan away two weeks ago was a microcosm of Arshavin's season: He had 70 minutes of looking really bad and then he had a 10 minute spell of brilliance, scoring an outstanding volley and assisting for Nicklas Bendtner's goal. He then proceeded to have 70 minutes of giving the ball away, defending slackly, and missing the goal that could've sealed 3 points and was eventually substituted for Theo Walcott, who has come to replace Arshavin in Arsene Wenger's first choice XI.

Instead of speculating any possible psychological reasons for Arshavin's demise (besides a loss of confidence), instead I want to look at what he's doing differently this year to years gone by, and what might have affected him tactically.

Tactics

One thing to consider when discussing Arshavin is that Arsenal play a different season now than they did in 2009 when he came in. Last year, he had an injury affected campaign, and also played up front, so I'll disregard that season, mainly because I want to compare this year's Arshavin, who has stayed mainly on the left wing with 2009's Arshavin. In 2009, when Arshavin arrived, Arsenal played a very fluid 4-4-2. The wingers had more defensive responsibility, and the midfield two were deeper (this is why the invincibles had Pires and Ljungberg score more than Gilberto and Vieira - they, along with Bergkamp and Henry were the creators and scorers). As a direct result, Arshavin was involved more in the build up play than he is now; with the change to a 4-3-3 meaning Arshavin is now usually involved in the final parts of play. That is one of the reasons why fans accuse Arshavin of not doing anything: For him, his role is now that of a finisher than an instigator. Even in the 4-4 draw with Liverpool, where Arsenal played a 4-2-3-1, Arshavin did very little, other than score 4 goals. In that regard, Arshavin is the same player, but with a different role. Instead of switching wings in a 4-4-2 as he did, he sticks to his left sided role, cutting in and appearing in the middle too. His passing is not the best, often because he is trying a difficult forward pass, or, as his detractors say, lazily losing the ball in the midfield. If, though, he's the same player, why is he not the Arshavin of 2009?

One thing that has become noticeable over the last few weeks is the amount of blocked shots Arshavin has had. This would be something that indicates that Arshavin is being closed down quickly, and lacking the confidence or the form to escape that situation, is having a shot at goal. Could this just be that Arshavin is lacking form?

Chalkboards

If you look at the Chalkboards from 2008/09 and 2010/11 (and they're available in Power Point form), it's hard to see the problem with Arshavin. If anything, the Russian is more effective in getting the ball into goal-scoring opportunities than he was in 2008/09.  The Chalkboards do back up Arshavin's positional difference, as his interplay with the midfield then was much greater than it is in 2010/11. He plays higher up the pitch, and he usually attempts to play with the front man (Marouane Chamakh or Robin van Persie), with the other winger, and with whoever is creating in the midfield. In 2008/09, he was more apt to spread the play around the midfield, and switch wings with Samir Nasri or Theo Walcott. The few times Arsenal played a 4-2-3-1, which meant he was higher up the pitch, he did very little (Liverpool away for example, where he completed 20 passes and scored 4 goals) other than assist or score, which was a preview of last year and this year. 

Another factor to consider is that playing on the left might not be Arshavin's best position. Both Zenit and Russia, for whom he starred, built their teams around Arshavin, with him playing behind the front man. His two best games this year, Villa and Fulham, show Arshavin popping up in central areas, as Rosicky, who is more willing to go out wide than Fabregas, was playing in the role behind Marouane Chamakh, but swapping with Arshavin. Playing Arshavin in a central role gives him space to roam, and less defensive responsibility. Unfortunately for him, Fabregas usually fills that position, but if Arshavin gets into those central positions when cutting in, a return of form is likely.

Conclusion

The change of Arshavin's role is the reason that he is not as heavily involved in play as he was when he first arrived. Because of that, he often goes long periods of the game being uninvolved, but his ability to make the final ball means he is still a dangerous player that is going through a loss of form and confidence, rather than a lack of disinterestedness, which some claim because he's not as involved as he was when he arrived in England. That's not to say that they're wrong, and it would be better for Arsenal if Arshavin was more involved in the build up play, because he is a very good player, but it's his role rather than his work rate that can make him anonymous for 70 minutes. With a regaining of form, he could be a more dangerous player than he was in 2008/09, and take some of the creative burden off Cesc Fabregas.

His defensive awareness, or lack of one, means that in the bigger games, he should be left on the substitute bench, but this isn't a situation too different from Dimitar Berbatov, who is often sacrificed in the big games at Manchester United, and has also been accused of being lazy.

Arshavin is not going to be a player that puts in a defensive shift like Dirk Kuyt or Park ji-Sung does, but he's a dangerous player that still has a big role to play in Arsenal's season.  

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