Andrei Arshavin came to my attention at Euro 2008 the same way a man might find a beautiful woman in a dimly lit bar shortly after a breakup. Back then he got my mind off all that was wrong with Arsenal and offered the promise of something better. And as I watched him on Tuesday, in Russia’s 1-1 draw against Poland, I was reminded of why I once fell for him and why we simply can never be.
Arshavin was the most exciting player at Euro 2008, and on the back of his swashbuckling play Russia made it to the semifinals. By the time he scored against Holland in the quarterfinals I was drooling lustily over the prospect of seeing him in an Arsenal shirt. Arsenal had lost the iconic talents of Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry and become a nursery for Europe’s best teenaged talents. They were good enough to play exciting football but lacking the experience and grit to win close matches in the same manner of the great Gunners teams from earlier in the decade.
On the evidence of Euro 2008, Arshavin was the missing link to bring back some of the glory days. He was a dribbler who could play behind the forwards, penetrate down the middle, or, if isolated out wide, beat his man one on one. Most importantly, Arshavin could put the ball in the net; he didn’t try to walk it in, either. If Arsenal could add his experience and intrepid play to the budding talents of Samir Nasri, Cesc Fabregas, and Robin Van Persie, they would really have something.
Arshavin arrived at Arsenal in February 2009. The highlights of the honeymoon period included a sublime solo effort against Blackburn, his four-goal performance against Liverpool, and his long-range goal against Manchester United. But like most rebound relationships, the bloom quickly fell off the Arshavin rose and I was left wondering what the hell happened. I blamed the manager for not giving him the freedom to roam; I blamed his teammates for not getting him the ball in positions where he could be effective. I blamed everyone except Andrei. Soon Arshavin began to sulk, stopped playing hard, and eventually found himself on the bench. Things got progressively worse this season. Arsenal sent him back to Russia on loan and it’s hard to imagine him returning.
Before Euro 2012 started I thought Arshavin was finished, but the news coming out of Russia was that he had rediscovered his form after a few months playing for Zenit St. Petersburg. In Russia’s 4-1 win against Czech Republic last week, it was Arshavin who was at the center of everything, assisting on two of their four goals. Most upsetting? Arshavin played the identical position he played for Arsenal when he decided to mail it in, inside left of midfield.
In the first half against Poland on Tuesday night it took Arshavin roughly two and a half minutes to send a dangerous pass behind the Polish defense and he was at it again in the ninth minute. A few minutes before halftime he finally delivered the telling pass from a free kick to give Russia a 1-0 lead before the break. He has now scored or assisted on five of Russia’s last seven goals at the European championships.
I hadn’t seen Arshavin affect a match like this in almost three years. For an Arsenal fan like me, Tuesday's performance was an infuriating reminder of why I once fell for the Little Tsar. But if the first half left me feeling nostalgic, the second half laid bare all the reasons why Arshavin can’t be trusted.
Early in the second half Russia had a four-on-three counterattack with Arshavin leading the break. Score there and it’s likely Poland wouldn’t have a way back into the match, but Arshavin laid off a lazy pass that was intercepted. Instead of tracking back like he did in the first half, he just stood there. The wide-open space on the left that he vacated was exploited on Poland’s counterattack, and before you knew it Poland captain Jakub Blaszczykowski was dispatching the ball into the back of the net for the equalizer.
For the rest of the match you could see Arshavin camping out in Poland’s half of the field while Poland launched one attack after another down the right flank, leaving Russia’s left back Yuri Zhirkhov exposed. It reminded me of so many Saturday and Sunday afternoons in the past, watching Arshavin mail it in. When the final whistle blew Tuesday night, I was not sure what I had just witnessed. Here was a player who was head and shoulders above everyone on the field for the first 45 minutes, then appeared to be little more than a passenger in the second half. As with all things in sports these days, I looked to LeBron James for an answer.
Before I settled in to watch the first match of the tournament last week, I caught LeBron’s Game 6 demolition of Boston on replay. Watching LeBron single-handedly defeat the Celtics with a determination and focus I’d never seen from him before, I wondered why he did not play this way more often. It was difficult to reconcile this performance with his 17-point average in last year’s NBA Finals. What is stopping him from delivering that effort on a nightly basis, I wondered? Maybe LeBron has a little Arshavin in him? True, sometimes the ball doesn’t go in the net and sometimes the other team matches your effort, but it is strange to see someone with that level of talent not bring it every night. No one ever wonders why Joel Anthony doesn’t bring it every night. We know why.
Watching Arshavin in the first half of Tuesday night’s match, I thought of LeBron against Boston. I thought of just how unstoppable the gifted athletes are when they want to be. Because LeBron and Arshavin don’t have the kind of limitations that are easy to see fans create theories and psychoanalyze them. But all too often our theories ignore the simple truths. Poland did not do anything differently in the second half Tuesday night. The game changed because Arshavin changed. And while I was tempted to come up with more excuses for what happened the truth was already there on the field. He is Andrei Arshavin. He plays when he wants.