I cannot have been the only one that had to double-take when seeing Andrei Arshavin’s name on the scoresheet, as Arsenal demolished Coventry City 6-1 in the Capital One Cup. Call it ignorance on my behalf, but I assumed he had surely ended what was becoming an increasingly barren spell at the Arsenal with a summer move away from the Emirates.
Of course, there was no real foundation to this presumption – and indeed, I’ve since learnt that he had already turned out once for the Gunners this season since returning from his loan at Zenit, a 77th-minute substitute in their opening-day draw with Sunderland. But, given his advancing years, his frustrating form with Arsenal, the opportunity to move back to his hometown St Petersburg… for me, it seemed unthinkable that he should even attempt to resurrect his career in North London.
(At this juncture, I should admit that it was by no means the only piece of transfer news – or, more accurately in this instance, non-transfer news – that I missed this summer. With the London 2012 Olympic Games occupying my life in its entirety during football’s off-season, I’m still playing catch-up with all the resettlements that happened over the break: I was surprised to learn Robin van Persie’s transfer saga still hadn’t been settled by the time I tuned back into football; I was only vaguely aware that Birmingham City had signed Darren Ambrose and Hayden Mullins when I saw them turn out against Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough; I didn’t even realise that the Carling Cup undergone its latest metamorphosis into the Capital One Cup.)
After being frozen out at Arsenal, Arshavin seemed to have been offered a haven from the cold with a return to Zenit. (Not climatologically-speaking, of course.) On his return to the Petrovsky Stadium, where he had spent a decade before moving to England, he contributed three goals and four assists in his 10 league games, as Zenit lifted their fourth championship (at the end of an ultra-long season, as the Russian football calendar finally aligned itself with the rest of Europe). In short, he made a telling impact in a team that won some silverware – pretty much the opposite of how his Arsenal career had panned out.
For many players on a lucrative salary in England, it would be cynical (but understandable) to opine that they’re happy to keep the bench warm for the remainder of their playing career, in exchange for an unjustifiably large amount of cash. Winston Bogarde, anyone? But in Arshavin’s case, I’m not so sure. Even despite being the victim of the predictably-emotional post-Euro 2012 fallout, when as captain he failed to negotiate Russia through a supposedly simple group stage, it still seems unlikely that the option to return home wasn’t available (especially with Arsenal allegedly happy to give him away for scrap value, just to get him off the books). I think it’s more probable that he believes he has something left to the Premier League and is determined to make it happen.
And despite the decision by new coach Fabio Capello to exclude him for their matches against Northern Ireland and Israel, he is still a national treasure – certainly one of the best footballers the country has produced for generations, and he played a well-publicised role in bringing the World Cup to Moscow for 2018. In the back of his mind, he’ll surely be targeting the chance to play in the tournament too – he will be 37 by the time It comes around (hard to believe, given that he barely looks like he’s lost his baby teeth), but having such a goal on the horizon can add longevity to a career. Andriy Shevchenko made no secret that Euro 2012 kept him going for a few years beyond what he thought was possible, and the disappointment of David Beckham (also 37) on missing out on the Team GB squad after all his Olympic endeavours was palpable.
Arshavin’s performance against Coventry was devastating. Not only did he score an exquisite goal, but he had a hand in three others, as well as winning a penalty which Olivier Giroud conspired to fluff. Admittedly, putting in a confident display against the Sky Blues – under a new manager, in a financial mire and probably not a bad shout for successive relegations – isn’t exactly a good barometer for the kind of challenges he’ll need to overcome for the rest of the season. But it’s the perfect start on the road to redemption.
Breaking back into the first-team squad with any regularity will be tough, because there may simply not be any room at the inn. In midfield, the addition of the wonderfully cerebral Santi Cazorla, the sudden ability to string together a few matches of Abou Diaby, the impending return of Tomas Rosicky, and with bright futures predicted for Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, it’s hard to see where he figures. And in a more forward berth, the sale of van Persie left no void because of the arrivals of Giroud and Lukas Podolski, and Theo Walcott and Gervinho have both enjoyed good starts to the year (name-drop the entire squad – check). But Arsenal have been scintillating in the league, and if it ain’t broke…
It’s not impossible that he’ll command a place again, and Arsene Wenger insists that the door is open for him to merit a place, but I can think of desperately few examples of players returning from the brink of obscurity to continue playing at the highest level. Gareth Bale is perhaps one of the more pertinent case-studies, to my mind – there was a period three years ago when he was derided as a bad-luck charm, as Spurs failed to win in any of his first 24 appearances. But after being lucky enough to get a run in the side when Benoit Assou-Ekotto got injured, and undergoing a sudden reinvention of tack (which, whilst being utterly one-dimensional, is unquestionably effective), his stock rose to being one of the most sought-after players in Europe.
Bale certainly had time on his side though. And most players, in particular the proverbial ‘old dogs’, end up going the other way. Every player’s career has its own narrative, but it takes a special individual to learn a few new tricks in their advancing years. Ryan Giggs is an archetypal example of a footballer that shed his flying-winger mould into a composed playmaker, and still dictates matches at the age of 38. But most follow a more regular cycle – a steady rise, peak in their late-twenties, and drop off the radar within a few seasons with neither pomp nor circumstance.
It can give off a pretty awkward vibe to see a player cling on to the remnants of a career with a club that no longer needs or foresees any purpose in keeping them. Bale’s former team-mate David Bentley (dubbed the ‘new David Beckham’, once upon a time), is a good example of this – still Spurs’ record signing at £15 million, he hasn’t been near the first team for several years, but is only on loan at FC Rostov from White Hart Lane. And Newcastle fans won’t need reminding that Xisco is the elephant in the stadium at their club – and he hasn’t even earned a loan deal away from St James’s Park this year.
Time will tell what the future holds for Arshavin. But he will need to be aware that time comes at a premium at this stage in his career. He will have to justify his decision to remain in North London with a lot of graft, if he’s hoping to have one last hurrah before hanging up his boots.