Under floodlights at Anfield, on the evening of Tuesday April 21, 2009, Arsenal’s record signing Andrey Arshavin scored all four goals in a stupendous performance against Liverpool.
By the summer of 2013, Arshavin’s north London odyssey was over. At its end, his return to Russia felt like a forlorn formality—the slow death of a dream finally come to pass.
To define the legacy of Arshavin’s Arsenal career remains as enigmatic a proposition as the man himself. Some would have him as a genius the club failed to exploit, others as a mentally frail player whose distractions cost him the career his talent was capable of.
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Eight years on from that dazzling display against Liverpool, are we closer to knowing where it all went wrong for Arshavin at Arsenal?
It was transfer deadline day, February 2, 2009, and when the snow came, London ground to a standstill. But Jon Smith had planned ahead.
The high-end football agent had flown Andrey Arshavin in from Saint Petersburg several days earlier, via a short stay in Paris, and his prized asset was now holed up in the Village Hotel in the sleepy village of Elstree, Hertfordshire.
As the deadline approached, it was widely reported Arsenal were pursuing Arshavin, though only the involved parties knew of the serendipity at play. Smith’s brother had played football with the brother of Dennis Lachter, Arshavin’s close friend and representative. On hearing Arsenal and Arshavin shared a mutual affection, Smith put wheels in motion.
Arshavin had been given time off by his club, the Russian league champions Zenit, during the domestic close season. His visit to Paris was publicly announced a vacation, but it was always about a potentially career-defining move. As weather warnings across Europe turned from moderate to severe, Smith gambled and flew his man into Stansted, booking a hotel just a 20-minute drive from Arsenal’s training base at London Colney.
Smith was playing with fire. Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger had been given the green light to pursue Arshavin, but after month-long negotiations no agreement had been reached with Zenit. At 3 p.m. on deadline day, the two parties remained £1.2 million apart in their valuation of the player. If the Russians got wind Arshavin was in London ahead of terms being agreed, it could derail the whole deal.
As a blizzard whipped up, the south-east of England had never looked more like the wintery city then known as Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) where Arshavin was raised. If he was shortly to be calling this place home, the omens were good.
The deal went through, just. There were seconds to go before deadline when an email reading simply “AGREED” arrived with the Football Association. Arsenal were able to confirm the £15 million arrival of one of Europe’s most sought-after players—a 27-year-old playmaker in his prime—and their fans were ecstatic.
Making such a big investment was not something Arsenal took lightly. This, after all, was a club with a reputation for deeply considered transfer activity. Especially under Wenger.
“Arsenal are very American corporate the way they approach transfers,” Smith tells Bleacher Report. “The club own a stats company based in Chicago, which has an office—I always call it a warehouse—in Cambodia where they have stats on just about every player on the planet. And they like to make sure that the stats stack up. It’s one of the reasons that they’re a bit slower moving in the market than some.
“With Arshavin, they didn’t think the valuation was correct, but they went to it. They weren’t going to overly, overly pay, but they really wanted him.”
As Arshavin settled into London life, his relationship with Smith grew tighter. Slowly the idiosyncrasies of a dense and unique character were revealed to his agent.
“He was very determined,” Smith says. “He used to get up every morning and go and run before training. He was very focused in that way, but he also had an amazing football brain. We would often sit down, just the two of us, and just talk football. And it was fascinating listening to him.”
Talk of Arshavin the model professional jars with a weight of public perception. This is a player who was chastised by fans and the media over his attitude, his physique and, towards the end of his time in England, his apparent willingness to sit on the bench and let the money roll in.
During a 2-1 defeat to Manchester United at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium in January 2012, Arshavin was greeted with a chorus of boos from the home support when he replaced Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as a second-half substitute.
For many fans, the enigma of Arshavin has remained largely intractable. Those who feel most bitter about his time at the club are surely the hoards who fell at his feet when he first wowed them.
“The first few weeks, the first month, the first year even, he was much loved,” Smith says. “Then systems change, personnel come and go, the ground got a bit soft under his feet. And I still feel sad about it, because he was a very talented player. I’m disappointed that the sensational start he made just didn’t propel him into the stratosphere.”
Arshavin’s first Arsenal goal came in a routine 4-0 win over Blackburn Rovers at the Emirates in March 2009. He scored again in a 4-1 stroll at Wigan. But it was on that heady night at Anfield he truly marked his arrival in English football.
His virtuoso performance in a 4-4 draw against title-chasing Liverpool made Arshavin the first visiting player to score four league goals at Liverpool since Dennis Westcott for Wolverhampton Wanderers in 1946. Notably, aside from Arshavin’s blitz, Liverpool conceded just nine Premier League goals at Anfield all season.
Moreover, it felt like the dam had finally broken for Wenger’s team. Between January 28 and March 3, Arsenal went on a drought of 360 minutes without a league goal. Was Arshavin the man to return the club to free-scoring ways?
One Arsenal insider, who has asked not to be named, sheds light on the precise tactical reasoning behind the club’s Arshavin deal.
“At the time when Arshavin was brought in, Arsene Wenger was initially in two minds about it,” he told Bleacher Report. “Then [Cesc] Fabregas got ruled out for about three months, and Arsene thought ‘If I don’t do something now, the season is going to go seriously wrong.’ He was put off initially by the price. [He] dismissed it out of hand. But then the Fabregas injury happened.”
Arshavin’s UK agent Smith explains further: “He [Arshavin] was the wide player that they really needed at the time. Arsenal like to play with wing-backs who push on, so it’s really useful to have two players on the same side who share a philosophy.
“Andrey had very quick feet and was actually quite tough physically. So he could drop back if the full-back was pushing on or he could step back a bit longer and be more defensive, because he had someone wide and fast out in front of him. It was a really dynamic signing at the time.”
Manuel Almunia played 44 times in goal for Arsenal during the 2008/09 season, the year Arshavin came to England. He studied the Russian’s game from that privileged vantage point of the goalkeeper and observed his character up close every day.
“I think Arsenal’s style of play was perfect for him,” Almunia says. “He liked the ball on the ground, at his feet. He was perfect. And he was a great professional too: training well every day, doing everything that the manager wanted from him. He’d come in, be happy in training, train well, and then go home without really speaking to anyone. That was Andrey. He was a cold-blooded guy, you know? Typical Russian. Professional, educated, but independent.”
If Arshavin’s time at Arsenal is to be defined by frustrations directed at a player who could have achieved more, then those of the man himself should be considered as well.
During his time at the club, Arshavin perceived tactical changes that worked against him. Often these would be small things: players not giving throw-ins into his feet, teammates not spotting his runs, a failure to exploit the space his intelligent movement carved out. Such issues should have been sorted out in the dressing room, or on the training ground, and put to bed easily, but they lingered.
Arshavin found resolution hard to come by. He sensed an inflexibility in the way Wenger set up his teams, with a lack of precision and detailed planning in place. Arshavin questioned his manager’s lack of tactical exercises in training. All the while, he retreated further into himself—a closed-off character failing to find the channels to communicate his grievances.
He was bought for his technicality. To divide the opposition and make space when it looked impossible. To disperse a crowded pitch with his movement. Arshavin saw himself as a No. 10, but Wenger had other ideas for where to station his expensive arrival.
“It didn’t work out because he was played out of position,” the club insider says. “The single biggest reason why things didn’t work was because he was played out wide on the right, as a sort of auxiliary winger. At Zenit he had always played behind the strikers, and that’s where he was best. On the wing it just wasn’t his game.
“There was even one period of his time here when he played centre-forward, which was just farcical. He was a wasted talent, and sometimes he gets a bit of an unfair rap.”
Wenger famously started Thierry Henry on the right and moved him inside, but with Arshavin this was trickier. He lacked the size of Henry and was not equipped to lead the line. With Arsenal only playing one up front for most of the Russian’s time in England, tactical circumstances did not play to his strengths.
Smith says Arshavin and Wenger regularly discussed a solution: “Whenever there was a football-related problem, Andrey would always say, ‘I’ve had this conversation with Arsene already, and he said he’s going to work on it.’
“But somewhere in there, there was a complex. Arsene is very much a players’ man and will always listen. He and Andrey had these conversations on many occasions, but whatever was being said, it seemed like he felt it didn’t quite play to him, rather it played to the team.”
The Arshavin “complex” suggests something planted deep in his mind was getting in the way of the most simple resolution: talking things through with his manager. But this was a player who had found great success working under coaches with far lesser reputations for man management than Wenger.
At Zenit, he had raised his boyhood club to their first league title in 24 years and a first-ever European trophy. In taking Russia to the semi-final of Euro 2008, the talk had been of these being Arshavin’s European Championship finals, just at those of 1984 had belonged to France’s Michel Platini. Two months before coming to London, he had been nominated for the Ballon d’Or, but at Arsenal he could no longer articulate his game to his teammates or, it seemed, his manager.
It wasn’t just football issues that were impacting Arshavin’s state of mind. Back in Saint Petersburg, he and his partner Julia were the David and Victoria Beckham of Russia. But in hyper-trendy London, Arshavin’s profile and the star power of the couple was considerably diluted. The attention that came from being the main man that he had enjoyed at Zenit was gone over night.
“Andrey came from being a big superstar in Russia,” Almunia says. “He was such a big name in football in Russia, he’d done so well at his club and with the national team. It really wasn’t easy for him when he came here, I think because of his character. He was a very good guy but very shy. He didn’t really open up so much to us. It was hard to tell whether he was happy in London or not because he kept everything inside of him.”
If Arshavin did reach out during his time at Arsenal, it was not to his teammates but his fans. His personal website, which was taken down late last year, featured a bizarre question and answer page. The gesture itself speaks to his willingness to engage and the extent to which he courted public approval. The execution, however, offered a window into the complicated psyche those around him were aware of.
“If you plan to lead a communist uprising in the UK,” offers one fan, “I would gladly help you storm Buckingham Palace.”
Arshavin replied: “Here in England I often catch myself thinking that everything here will be just the same in a hundred years’ time and even after that, everything will be just the way it is now. Don’t change anything, you don’t need any revolutions.”
This is not the standard fare of patter between footballers and their fans.
Here was a player who failed to connect on a personal level with his teammates yet reached out and engaged with fans in an offbeat way that would seem unfathomable to most footballers.
“He was very closed in the dressing room,” Almunia says. “He really wasn’t open to us at all, and I think he wasn’t happy in London. When you have a problem in your life, I think it helps if you have people around that you can talk to and share your problem with. If you can share the things that are happening in your life, then in the end you feel better. But Andrey was an introvert.
“When he was unhappy, you could see it in his face, but he didn’t find anyone to talk to. It was strange because Arsenal was always a great environment; there was always nice people around. The players, the staff, everyone. But everybody is different, you know. We all come from different homes.”
Some suggest Arshavin was unpopular amongst his teammates, a consequence of the standoffish way in which he carried himself. Could it be said there was a sultry air to a man who kept a permanent wedge between himself and his colleagues?
“There was a charity event that the club were involved in,” the Arsenal insider says, “and Arshavin…well, I’m not saying that he didn’t get involved, but he certainly didn’t put in as much as some of the other players. Even around the training ground he was very much an individual.”
Arshavin was certainly culturally curious; not many footballers hold a degree in fashion design, even if, as one observer disclosed, “He dressed like a man who’d been given £20k worth of Sports Direct vouchers.”
Later, when his Arsenal game time became scarce, Arshavin was able to sustain himself in the city by plugging into its vast cultural metropolis. From the perspective of a budding traveller keen to satiate a curiosity about the world, this is admirable. But when you read about a marquee Premier League footballer who never raised hell—or even his voice—about being left out of the team for long periods, alarm bells ring.
But Arshavin was a renegade; he did not comply. “He was one of the best players in Europe and one of the best I have played with,” Almunia says. “When he came here, we in the team were very excited. We expected a lot from him. But not everyone can succeed in the way that we want.”
There is a word that comes up more than once in conversations around Arshavin, as those who know him grope around for the right turn of phrase for his time at Arsenal. That word is victim.
A picture develops of a man who took the plunge into a new and unfamiliar culture, bringing with him a professional mindset and a sincere will to succeed, but who felt unheard and ultimately misunderstood in his new surroundings.
“From my point of view, he was always a dedicated professional,” Smith says. “But there was a certain amount of professional frustration that came along with that. And there was personal stuff too. He was disappointed that he didn’t get the recognition he thought he was going to get. Don’t get me wrong: He didn’t have a huge ego or want to be a megastar. That wasn’t Andrey.
“But his talent didn’t get the recognition he felt it deserved, and after that things just didn’t feel great for him. And he really tried, but after two-and-half years of keeping on trying, he just felt like he’d had enough.
“He and Julia had been so high-profile in Russia at the time, and they didn’t get that kind of recognition over here. They just had a hugely supported lifestyle in Russia, and that didn’t happen here. And then when they separated and Andrey met somebody else, I think in his head it was like, ‘right, time to go home now.'”
The footballer can never be fully separate from the emotional self. Arshavin had been a big part of the culture of Saint Petersburg, the only place he had ever called home, and acclimatisation in London was a problem. In the end, there was a particularly insidious strain of homesickness which disrupted the rhythm drummed up by that explosive introduction to life at Arsenal.
What was not to blame, contrary to popular myth, was a reluctance to graft and adapt to the speed and physicality of the English game. In football terms, Arshavin was every bit an Anglophile, committed to hard work. For all the misinformation and half-truths that have dogged his legacy, perhaps the most unfair and misleading is that he just didn’t care. Arshavin was a thinker, an aesthete. At the back of it all, he was a philosopher.
He liked the challenge that English football offered him. He liked the pace at which the game moved here, that speed and intensity that was missing from the game in Russia. He also deeply admired the cosmopolitan attitude of the game and the way that it embraced cultures from around the world, those injections of variety from Africa, Asia and South America, which at the time were conspicuous by their absence from Russian football. But he thought the tactics of English football were too basic.
In Russia, the game is less physical. There isn’t that compulsion to push, move and run as in England. It is that same dichotomy between tactical brains and brute power that is picked over each time the England team returns empty-handed from summer tournaments. Arshavin was uncomfortable with it from the start. He recognised something primitive in the English DNA, the way time spent on the pitch hurries by and players are expected to do the same. Arshavin needed time.
“He was intelligent enough to recognise that dichotomy,” Smith says, “between the way English players are coached for 40 weeks of the year and the way they are expected to perform at summer tournaments, against say the Italians, who are able to spend 90 minutes cleverly playing the ball nowhere. And he saw that his game wasn’t a fit.”
This helps to join up the dots between the two sides of Arshavin the electric sprite that tore Liverpool apart at Anfield and the one who felt unable to articulate himself either through his words or through his football when the ground beneath him got soft. In the end, it was this contrast that consumed him. He felt his talents were wasted in a working environment that he was powerless to alter. It was a chastening cocktail.
Arshavin was brought to Arsenal to add imagination, but crucially this came at a time when the plates beneath the club were shifting. The team of the Invincibles, built around power, athleticism and skill, had been disbanded, and in its place a new group had come together—one that sorely lacked that uncompromising physicality.
He became a symbol of an Arsenal the fans rejected. Once his creativity would have been indulged—the icing on the cake. Now a team could not carry him. Stereotypes began to take hold; he was lazy, a mercenary, unwilling to pull his weight.
Smith remembers inviting Arsenal players for five-a-side games at his home. The push and hurry, shove and harry of it all. The first movement was with the arms and the elbows, buying that extra moment of oxygen. Kanu was a master, Smith says. Arshavin was left frustrated by the limits it placed on his game.
“English football demands physical power,” Smith says. “You have to have an exceptional system to play to the strengths of someone like Kevin Phillips or Andrey Arshavin. The opposition only need that fraction more strength and power and they can take you apart. Some players have grown up here with that or have adapted to being surrounded by all that physicality. Arshavin was mentally very strong, but he was also very stubborn. And this was not his game.”
If there is one last consideration to the Arshavin enigma, it can be found on his tax returns in England. Arshavin was utterly perplexed by the tax he was asked to pay on his earnings. At the point of agreeing terms with Arsenal, he had been under the impression that the net amount on the contract was the amount that he would receive.
It was an issue he never got past. And to that end, much of his time at the club was footnoted by attempts to negotiate an increase—compensation for what he felt was a raw deal.
Arshavin is now 35 and playing for FC Kairat in Kazakhstan. To Russian football fans, he remains enshrined as their talismanic hero of Euro 2008 and one of the most beloved players in their history. To Arsenal fans, his legacy is far more complicated to define.
Squawka News @SquawkaNews
Andrey Arshavin won a bet with a blogger that claimed he wouldn’t score more than 7 goals this season.
The prize? He got to cut his hair. 😂 https://t.co/PaET58nk9L
10/6/2016, 11:41:31 AM
But whether your position is to blame the man himself for his unfulfilled talent or the circumstances dictated to him, everyone can agree the Premier League would have been a better place for more glimpses of the magician who owned Anfield on that heady night in 2009.
Maybe at a different club, under a different manager, things might have turned out differently. Or maybe the Premier League and life in England just weren’t the right conditions for Arshavin to thrive in.
“He was a fun-loving, intelligent man,” Smith says. “I have to stress that: He was great fun. And he wasn’t just intelligent in terms of football; he had a good view on life generally. But sometimes in life you make a decision because you think ‘that job is really for me, I love that. I’ll be good for them and they’ll be good for me.’ And it just doesn’t work out.”
Rob O’Connor is a contributing football writer at Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @hoovesonfire.