Sometime during the last week there was this article on the Arsenal website with a few comments from Benayoun. The Israeli skipper said that he can understand the reasons for not getting regular starts and was happy to contribute whenever he got a chance.
They say you don’t change a winning team and we are on a good run so it is very difficult to get into the team.
The only thing I can do is to wait for any chance I get – it doesn’t matter if it is 15 minutes or I get to start. I have to prove myself any chance I get and I am sure I can do it.
There isn’t anything particularly striking about these words and one would expect any intelligent, mature footballer to voice such a sentiment. But they reminded me of other words I’d read a month or so ago and it provided a very interesting contrast.
Some of you might remember this in-depth interview (in Russian) given by Arshavin in early November. It was loosely covered in the media and by some blogs. The usual out of context twist was about Wenger being stubborn and stuff like that. Others took a light-hearted view. I want to talk about a different portion of that interview. Here is the excerpt I am interested in (with thanks to Google translate),
Q: What a man feels, whose team plays “Chelsea” with a score of 5-3, and he sits on the bench?
A: That game at least it was fun to watch. And when the score 3-0, you let out 10 minutes prior to the end and you just want to play myself because everyone else already see out … Not the most pleasant sensations.
It’s not difficult to see Arshavin is not particularly happy about coming on late in the games. He seems to be saying that playing the final few minutes is not enjoyable as the teammates are often just going through the motions (when the result is in the bag).
The contrast in the thoughts of the two players could not be starker. One wants to prove himself every time he gets on the pitch while the other doesn’t really appreciate coming on for the final few minutes.
If I am not mistaken, the current typecasting of these two Gunners is that Arshavin is lazy and can’t be arsed whereas Benayoun is a hardworking player who gives his all for the club. The opinions quoted above will probably do nothing more than strengthen these stereotypes if I stop at this juncture.
But I want to delve deeper. Partly due to the fact that I like Arshavin and he seems like one of the most misunderstood players. And in part because it provides an opportunity to discuss how personalities affect performances and the issues they must cause for managers.
I have always seen the Russian talisman as a very intelligent person whose honesty is at times misconstrued. In the same interview, in fact as a continuation of that discussion on playing as a substitute, Arshavin had this to say,
Q: When staying in the reserve, the success of partners rejoice?
A: Hmm … Before this season, remained something not too often. But I can remember, “Zenit” The lawyer.That’s when it was with this in order. Each knew the other possibility, no one had demanded from the partners of the impossible. The main thing was to appear as one. It does not matter who scores, just to win.In fact, now and in the national team since. Similar biorhythms.
Clearly the same as someone on the field better get one, someone else. There are those who in the locker room after the game thinks: “I brought victory.” But there are others. For them the main thing: “We won.” In his youth, often occurs first thought, with experience comes the second.
The translation software doesn’t quite hit the target there but we can make some guesses. I believe he is saying this is a new situation for him but previous experience at Zenit under Advocaat (The lawyer!) and with the national side has taught him that cohesiveness in the squad is most important – “The main thing was to appear as one”.
The second paragraph is even more interesting and shows his maturity that has come with experience. The translation might not be very good but “I brought victory” and “We won” are two clearly distinct ways of thinking. Clearly, Arshavin knows the second approach is more important. So it would be safe to say he understands why he is on the bench and that’s the reason we don’t see him coming out in the media talking against the manager.
Just as words, when not seen in their entirety or the right context, can lead to unjustified opinions, I believe a player’s performance on the pitch can also be misread without the right background.
I would not argue with anyone who’d say there are many instances where the Russian appears to be slacking on the pitch and doesn’t really contribute enough in defence. However, I am not convinced that is enough to jump to the conclusion that he is lazy and/or doesn’t care.
Every interview that I have heard or read suggests to me that Arshavin is a very creative person who wants to produce and share beautiful, magical moments on the football pitch. But such is the nature of the sport that any player, no matter how talented, cannot really thrive unless he gets a) regular games, and b) the right system and teammates. The performances of Messi for Barcelona and Argentina should be an obvious example. There are many others.
So in order to analyze a player’s performance one has to look at the kind of system he is playing in, the quality of teammates, and such related factors. Are they suited to bring the best out of him?
If we just go back to the start of last season, Arshavin was having a major impact. Nasri and Walcott were scoring a lot of goals but the Russian was picking up a number of assists and was the creative hub of the team in the absence of Cesc and Van Persie. Believe it or not, the mercurial Russian had 10 goals and 18 assists in all competitions last season, which bettered the Goals + Assists totals of Nasri, Cesc, and Walcott and was just one behind the 29 (22+7) that Van Persie managed. That’s not to say he was better than all the others, but merely to highlight the kind of contribution he can make.
That team was set up to give the Russian his creative freedom with players alongside who could thrive on the chances he created.
Sometime last winter Andrei lost a bit of form and that led to a combination of Nasri and Walcott on the flanks. That team managed a strong run of results forcing the Russian on the bench for long periods. That meant he rarely got a chance to recover his form and when he did get chances it was often with the second string where the players were not really at the same level. For a player with his talents and personality, that isn’t the ideal way to regain his mojo.
The last game against Olympiacos provides a good example of what can happen when a relatively disjointed unit goes out to play. It might surprise you to know that Arshavin covered the most distance in that game. That certainly does not sit well with the “lazy” theory. But those who have seen the game will argue he was largely conspicuous by his absence. So why are the stats giving such a different account of the game that most fans saw?
I think the answer lies in the Russian’s game style. He makes a lot of early runs, keeps on getting into spaces between the lines, and is rarely static when off the ball. This adds to the yardage over the whole game but is often not noticed because most eyes are on the ball and the surrounding areas. Now if the other players can’t read those runs or find them with their passes, a player making such movements would go widely unnoticed. That way he would cover a lot of ground but will not have much to show for it.
Is that good or bad? Would you rather have another player who can do the donkey work and help out the defence or have someone who can produce a bit magic? ? It’s hard to say definitively but given the style that Wenger prefers, Le Boss will need players who have vision and flair.
Some might think Arsene is a fool in persisting with an aging player who is past his best. It might be the case. But I think the manager sees a few things that are hard to find in players – a) Has inherent talent to make things happen, b) Is professional enough to accept the fact that he cannot start regularly, c) Works hard (in his own way) when he does get the chance even if it appears that the player doesn’t do enough.
Look around and you will see that few players do well when they are on the bench for long periods and for the big games. Anelka, Drogba, and Torres have all struggled at some stage or the other when they haven’t got starts at Chelsea. Berbatov has a great start last season but hasn’t really contributed at the same level once his star declined. Dzeko wasn’t making any impact for City when playing in Tevez’s shadow. He might struggle again later in the season if he is kept on the bench for most of the big games. Van der Vaart and Sneijder were not doing that well at Madrid but subsequently excelled for their new teams when put in the spotlight. There is no dearth of examples when it comes to talented players struggling to perform when they don’t get regular starts with the strongest team.
Obviously a man with Wenger’s experience and depth of knowledge would understand this. He’d also know that anyone else coming in is also as likely to struggle on the bench as the Russian is and that the only way out of a rut is by playing through it. He has to give Arshavin as many minutes as possible and hope that the work being done in training can bring the spark back. I believe that explains why he keeps playing Arshavin when many fans and pundits have already written him off.
Players like Benayoun are good, hard-working individuals who have their fair share of talents. But even a guy like Benitez, under whom the Israeli arguably had his best years in the Premiership, thought of Benayoun as a very good impact player from the bench rather than a starter. So it would seem the deadline day loan from Chelsea was to add some strength to the bench more than anything else. In that light it’s understandable that Wenger wants to get more out of Arshavin rather than Benayoun.
Don’t get me wrong, the point is not to berate the Israeli who puts in an honest shift whenever he gets on, nor is it to defend the Russian who isn’t always busting his guts. The idea is to explore the various dynamics, on and off the pitch, that affect a player’s performance. And with that background, to see whether Wenger’s penchant for picking Arshavin is justified or not. There is no way to definitively argue that AA23 is not past his peak. It could be that Wenger is flogging a dead horse. But when you consider all the factors discussed here, would you rather trust Wenger’s instincts about a player he watches everyday or do you want to go with the hastily formed opinions based on limited evidence that seem stronger than they are simply because they are repeated ad nauseam?
A better system of rotating players is an alternative that deserves a separate, detailed discussion. As does the tactical switch of putting Arshavin in the hole. In a way these two are also linked. Will try to cover them, hopefully sooner rather than later.