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Some wistful thoughts about Andrei Arshavin

Free this man.
Free this man.

I love Andrei Arshavin, but his time at Arsenal makes me sad somehow. A story:

Arshavin ruined my Euro 2008 fun. My friends and I had made something of a lunchtime ritual of watching the matches on ESPN3, and there was no doubt about the team that was stealing our loyalty: Clockwork Oranje. The Netherlands were cutting through teams with ferocity in the group stages, and we watched with glee as Dutch counterattacks crushed both Italy and France, orange uniforms with light blue socks scoring goals by the handful. That was to stop, though, as Marco van Basten's men came up against countryman Guus Hiddink's Russia side, featuring the deadly-but-obscure rosy-cheeked playmaker.

Russia took the air out of Holland's balloon that day, and my friends and I looked on, grim-faced. Ruud van Nistelrooy managed an equalizer in the 86th minute, but Russia had been all over the Dutch for most of the match, Arshavin pulling strings behind Roman Pavlyuchenko. As a reported target of both Tottenham and Arsenal, as well as Barcelona, my mind began to wander. When he set up Russia's second in extra time, and then scored their third, the zeroes piling onto the end of the Zenit man's transfer fee seemed to make him fade away.

Only, of course, he didn't, arriving at the Emirates at the last possible moment on January 31, 2009.

Almost two years, 88 appearances, 23 goals, and dozens of assists later, Arshavin has become a target for almost every conceivable emotion Arsenal supporters can have. He has a tremendous flair for the dramatic, scoring four goals at Anfield and a winner against best-side-ever Barcelona last year in the Champions League. He swings passes through to strikers with an alarming ease at times, and wears t-shirts with screenprinted giraffes on them. The ball seems to rocket off his foot without him even having moved, his much-vaunted "no backlift" causing keepers and defenders grief. When he scores, he almost never scores in a boring way, and he's not above celebrating by exposing a t-shirt with an image of himself, celebrating scoring a goal.

He makes fun of Nicklas Bendtner's obsession with cell phones.

The man is joy.

Frustratingly, though, since his arrival, he's played almost entirely on the left wing, which is not his best position. For Zenit and for Russia, he played behind the striker, the main creative force. At Arsenal, his wing play has reduced that creativity somewhat, and other aspects of his game (defending) are not particularly as strong as one might like from a wide man in a 4-3-3 template. And he knows it, as Arseblog points out, quoting from the Arsenal matchday program last week:

Normally when I’m on the pitch I take control of a game, but I haven’t done that here. I’m an extra tool in the team rather than the main one, so it’s been different.

Having also admitted that he doesn't think he's played at his best during his time at Arsenal (despite the assists), he says that he hopes to improve in the coming months:

Since Russia qualified for Euro 2012 I’ve felt completely relaxed and comfortable, hopefully that will show in my performances, because mentally I feel much better than before.

We know that Arsène Wenger likes to bring youth players through, and we know that Aaron Ramsey has done some good things taking the helm at the front of the Gunners midfield this year. I hope that Ramsey blossoms into a midfielder that can really unlock defenses, and I relish the thought of he and Jack Wilshere running the show for years to come. That being said, Arsenal have the Russian right now. Supporters have caught glimpses of him at his best in the Carling Cup match against Bolton, playing in the middle behind Park Chu Young and providing most of Arsenal's offense. Many times this season, Arsenal's front three have looked isolated, but Arshavin is the type of player who, although mercurial, has the vision and technique to set strikers free. In the middle, too, his defensive weakness is minimized.

I just wish I could see him there more often, because when he is playing well, and enjoying himself, and making things happen, it is probably the closest Arsenal come to pure, white-hot happiness.