Blame lies at Arshavin's door
Wasted talent should be a criminal offence - and it is a misdemeanour Andrey Arshavin is guilty of. Down went the judge's hammer last week as it was announced the Russian's contract will not be renewed beyond June 30, drawing a line under a career in England titled 'What If'. In 2009 he arrived, aged 28, seemingly at the peak of his powers. His finger-to-the-lips celebration was already household, yet it was his career that was to peter out with a whisper.
Rewind five years, when he bewitched onlookers with his exploits at Euro 2008. In spite of missing the opening two matches of Austria-Switzerland through suspension - after kicking Andorra defender Ildefons Lima in the final qualifier - he would be named in the UEFA Team of the Tournament.
This was a supremely gifted player, the type to involuntarily raise you from your chair. Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger was among those he had made an impression. And in the winter transfer window of the following year, Wenger made his move.
Having been courted by Barcelona - a team Arshavin publicly admires - and Tottenham, the addition of the forward at Arsenal was seen to be a coup. It was not an agreement without its hitches, with the transfer on, off, then back on again before the player announced, amid a snow-blanketed London, "I am a Gooner" - the deal was not ratified until February 3. His first goal for his new club sure whetted the appetite: a jinking run against Blackburn, lifting the ball into the roof of the net from an acute angle.
Indeed, the six goals and five assists in 12 league appearances which followed provided the thrust to secure Champions League qualification for Wenger's side. Included was that performance against Liverpool, where the surprise on his boyish face that greeted each brilliant strike was only matched by the wide-eyed thrill experienced by Arsenal fans that evening. With that he became the first Gunner to score four in a single game since Julio Baptista (perhaps the writing was on the wall right there).
After scoring a late brace against Atletico Madrid at the illustrious Emirates Cup, Wenger was not shy in coming forward with his billing of what Arshavin could become. "The difference is now he knows how English football works," the Frenchman said, before in October saying: "If he manages to make Arsenal win he will become an all-time great. That is the real challenge he faces and I am convinced he has all the potential to do it." But, as we know, he failed to fulfil that potential. Why?
Just a month after Wenger had uttered his name in the same breath as Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, when his player seemed on the crest of a wave, Arshavin's levels of contentment came crashing down. The nation he captained failed to reach the 2010 World Cup as they were beaten by Slovenia on away goals. The footballer who oft looked carefree was broken. "I don't want to play football," he told his club manager. Perhaps the anguish was so severe that he never fully recovered his love for the sport.
While there would still be good moments to come - his goal in the Champions League last-16 first leg against Barcelona 2011, his canny assist for Thierry Henry's late winner at Sunderland - they would be few and far between. Indeed, the latter appearance at the Stadium of Light was to be his last that term before a loan deal was agreed with his boyhood club Zenit St Petersburg, where he achieved so much before heading to North London.
The rosy-cheeked forward had shone prior to the larger stage of Euro 2008. Hence, ruing that he did not write himself into Premier League folklore - a la Dennis Bergkamp, Eric Cantona or Gianfranco Zola - is tinged with jingoism, considering his being named Russian Footballer of the Year in 2006, winning of two Russian Premier League titles, UEFA Cup and UEFA Super Cup winners medals, not to mention coming sixth place in the 2008 Ballon d'Or. But it is hard not to be bitter about talent wasted, about what was missed out on first hand on British shores on a consistent basis.
Imagine Ryan Gosling choosing to go about his business with a paper bag on his head. Was Arshavin's a self-inflicted impingement? Or was it Wenger's fault? Maybe his manager had failed him. There is a suggestion the Russian was played out of position, not deployed often enough where he is most devastating in the hole behind the main striker. But Arshavin made little noise about this, in fact stating in an interview with the BBC in March 2009 that in a 4-3-3 system he preferred to play "as a winger".
The blame instead surely lies with the player. "I believe my talent, my technique, is God-given and all I do is keep it going, rather than bury it in the ground," Arshavin told the Daily Mail. "It is a natural talent. I knew I had it from the first day of training at the age of seven, because I found football easy."
If those words are to be taken at face value, it seems that Arshavin felt under no pressure to stretch himself to his maximum. This is what separates the great players from the truly great, that sweating out every bead of talent, like the aforementioned Ronaldo and Messi who have earned their pedestals.
It was by the means of graft rather than technique that ensured Wenger's team claimed Champions League qualification during the 2012-13 season, meaning there was simply no place for Arshavin - he who had lost the trust of the fans and his boss for his failure to track back when needs must. He accrued just 86 minutes of Premier League football during the entirety of the campaign.
His decline raises question marks ahead of this summer, too, with chief executive Ivan Gazidis making noises about money to be spent at Emirates Stadium. Lest we forget that at a reported £15 million Arshavin is Arsenal's most expensive purchase. He was an un-Wenger like signing, brought in with pedigree and with next to nil chance of resale value. One wonders, amid all the hot air from Gazidis, whether the financially astute and stubborn Wenger is wary of getting his fingers burnt once more.
Regardless, Arshavin's tale in England is a one of what might have been, of a man who came, saw, but failed to conquer, when he had the potential to do so. Back in 2011, the Sun ran quotes from Arshavin's book 555 Questions And Answers On Women, Money, Politics, Football in which he wrote: "At the moment I drive a Mercedes GL class. I like it. It's big and comfortable." Well, quite.