Andrei Arshavin: A Man Who Lost His Magic & Didn't Know Where To Look...
It's 2023 and you're in London. You walk into a bar and hear a cheeky local voice washed with thick hint of Russian. You turn to look and a 5' 6”, slightly portly looking fellow greets your eyes. A beard almost covers his part-ruddy cheeks, and a finger is pressed to his lips as the punchline to an anecdote of a time long since forgotten.
A ghost stirs in the memory, more than a decade recedes, and you realise it's Sharky, Shava, AA23. It's the diminutive, Leningrad-born question answering spark which set tongues wagging at Euro 2008. Ah, perhaps he got his wish to stay in London after all, to settle his family here. But one part of his life never really took to the English capital, even when it seemed a perfect fit.
It's a saddening for all football fans: To see any player with obvious talent fade away is more than a stark reminder of the fragility of football careers. It's a reminder for fans who dreamed of greatness that even those who find their way towards it aren't always destined to make it. Yet for Andrei Arshavin, it's a very strange case.
When he joined Arsenal as a marquee signing in February '09 there was genuine excitement. The little Russian was turning himself into a global name. With his incisive runs, his wizardry feet, and a killer final ball, he should have been an awesome addition to the Gunner's armoury. And at 27, it seemed he had some years left to keep on firing.
What he was capable of came in glimpses. April '09 saw him net that ridiculous yet brilliant four at Anfield. Never a prolific scorer, the 2009/10 season gave him 12 goals from 39 appearances in all competitions, almost equalling the 15 scored in 46 appearances for Zenit in 2007. It seemed things were going to plan. But they wouldn't for long.
Arshavin made 52 total appearances in the 2010/11 season, scored 10, but delivered 17 assists. A flash of the impact we craved came at home against Barca in a 2-1 win in the last 16 of the Champions League. I remember that game well. Arshavin ended a perfect move from front to back which, oddly, included Nicklas Bendtner. I of course chose to miss the game and instead go to the Carling Cup final against Birmingham (a competition where silverware was assured...). Yet despite scoring that goal against prestigious opposition, Arshavin's performances dropped markedly. Wenger kept faith in the man, but that faith was never really repaid.
From the perspective of a season ticket holder in 2010/11, Arshavin didn't seem interested in many pre-game warm-ups. Nor particularly did he seem interested in the games themselves. The next season, things just got worse. With a manager resolutely defending his player's ability to assist and perform (he did well in training, I believe), Arshavin played a bit-part in the first half of the 2011/12 Premier League season. Then he - somewhat inexplicably - improved his form while on loan back to Zenit. He won silverware that year, but it only seemed to prove one thing. The man may prefer it in London. His football, it seems, did not.
Flash forward to the present day and his impending contract expiration seems a small mercy in many ways. It's always hard to tell what players are going through, but if he does choose to retire when/if the club releases him, it will be the end of what's seemed a prolonged falling out of love for the game, and an inability to replace that passion with professionalism. We've watched Andrei misplace pass after pass, not put in a shift, put in a shift and get nowhere like a man who's lost all his magic and doesn't know where to find it. It's tough, and it's tough for fans too.
A good friend of mine, a 'Sharky' die-hard, recently said he felt Arshavin could play the Santi role on rotation. I think he could too...once. Not now. It reminds me of a desperate Paul Gascoigne, newly retired from the game and claiming he could still do a job at the highest level. He might have been able too had things gone the way of Giggs, but things went too far the other way. Similarly, Arshavin seems too far gone from the player we thought we were buying. That sounds harsh, but it's harsh also to call Arshavin Wenger's biggest flop. Is it Wenger's fault we bought a player perhaps already at his peak and not sticking around to enjoy it? A player on a quick descent into abject apathy?
Perhaps that's not what happened at all to the Russian. But it's almost unfathomable to say what has. He's one of the greatest talents I've witnessed fizzle out almost at will. Michael Owen's injuries, Gazza's personal/health issues, Arshavin's...what? I really don't know what's happened. He's given us some good memories, but far, far too few. Too few for the price-tag, too few for the support, and too few for the passion he seemed to once possess. I'm not sure any Arsenal fan knows why that's happened, and I'm not sure any of us will ever.
Still, if I see him in a bar in London in 2023...you know, I might just ask him.