During the international break Arsenal forward Andrei Arshavin has been outspoken over his erratic form, and whilst he failed to pin down the source of his inconsistencies he openly identified that he has become “more effective” but “less sparkling.” With the new season beginning to unfold, it is worth considering whether this description could be equally applied to the side as a whole.
Unpredictability is one of Arshavin’s strengths, and it seems that hot and cold form comes with the territory with such an enigma. The thing most troubling him though, was that he struggled to recall the last “beautiful goal” he scored for the club. The season opener against Liverpool ensured fans of the Gunners did not draw a blank when posed with the same question. Memories of his four strikes in the epic 4-4 draw with the Merseyside club came flooding back, as did his searing winner in last season’s trip to Anfield. This time around, he looked a shadow of the player he has in past visits, and despite an improved showing against Blackpool, still looks way short of his brilliant best.
His desire to entertain, much like that of the manager, is commendable, but the change in his personality is testament to the growing pressure to lift a trophy. There is an apparent dawning realisation that it will not always be possible to win by playing beautiful football. ‘Winning ugly’ is a quality often ascribed to champions, but mere functionality is the very antithesis to the flair imbued in Arsene Wenger’s sides, and is equally as ill at ease with the diminutive Russian’s game. Upon his arrival after illuminating the 2008 European Championships, it was hard to imagine the schemer being shackled with responsibility and duty. However, following a painfully empty off-season for Arsenal’s No 23, following his national side’s failure to reach the World Cup finals, Arshavin now looks to be shouldering the responsibility of his position as one of the elder statesmen in a youthful side. Having spoken of a growing maturity in both his professional and personal lives and of how his time at the club had changed him, perhaps his musings are reflective of a wind of change blowing through the club.
Whilst disappointing the purists, a degree of pragmatism may satiate the widespread desire for silverware. Wenger’s summer transfers reflect this, with potential ability being matched by experience within the new arrivals. Marouane Chamakh still has time to develop, but comes with vital Champions League experience which will be key to Arsenal kicking off their European campaign with the news that Robin van Persie has been sidelined for six weeks. Chamakh’s arrival effectively signalled the departure of Eduardo, who will return to the club when the Gunners face Shakhtar Donetsk in the group stages. Their respective transfers give another indication of a more practical approach from monsieur Wenger. He traded a ‘fox in the box’, a goal-mouth finisher for an athletic and versatile target man, seemingly identifying the need for an alternative method of attack when intricate passing cannot penetrate. Chamakh’s aerial presence ensured Arsenal grabbed a late point at Anfield on the opening weekend, but he displayed his ability on the floor with his build-up play in an adroit showing against Blackpool. Getting the right blend between the two appears to be the way forward, for him and the team as a whole.
Whilst Wenger has transformed Arsenal, his time at the helm appears to have changed him. He signed what is quite possibly his last contract extension with the club, and after a trophy-laden baptism in English football the flow of silverware has somewhat dried up. As well as altering his options in attack this summer, Le Professeur has spent comparatively heavily in reinforcing his defence. The obvious potential of Laurent Koscielny has been matched by the experience of Sebastien Squillaci, with the manager breaking his policy of giving only one-year deals to players over the age of 30 to secure the latter. Signing Squillaci is an instant solution to an apparent problem, something that is not normally ascribed to Wenger’s transfer dealing. The altogether more organic approach has not been abandoned – the home grown rule and associated 25-man squad list ensure that – just modified.
The manager has somewhat compromised his ideals in order to give the side every chance of success, but has retained the essence of his philosophy of growing a successful team. The aesthetic side of his team’s play and the prudent running of the club has drawn plaudits but not prizes. With the Gunners’ mounting tales of near-misses, adapting rather than abandoning the policy seems the best way forward. Whilst unpalatable to purists, perhaps sparkling play and silverware are mutually exclusive and the rigours of the Premier League make pragmatism necessary. If so, Arsenal have used their summer wisely.