Andrey Arshavin: Farewell to a Talented but Frustrating Enigma

Andrey Arshavin: Farewell to a Talented but Frustrating Enigma

Friday, 30 November, 2018 - 07:00
Andrey Arshavin celebrates after scoring the first of his four goals for Arsenal against Liverpool at Anfield in 2009. Photograph: Dave Thompson/PA
London - Nick Ames
A little magic hung in the air during Andrey Arshavin’s first morning in London but it was thick with uncertainty, too. Islington was covered in snow, its streets subdued to muffled stillness, and the only noise swirling around Arsenal was not the kind their fans wanted to hear. Negotiations to sign the in-demand forward had been dragging on for weeks but now, on deadline day, news bulletins suggested they had faltered. Arshavin was seemingly on a plane back to St Petersburg so Arsenal, thin on fit attacking options and trailing fourth-placed Aston Villa by five points, would have to struggle on with that they had.

In fact the reports were wrong and at the precise moment they broke, Arshavin was telling the canteen staff at the club’s Highbury House headquarters how he liked his eggs for breakfast. The loose ends of the £15m deal were eventually tied up and the point of the tale is that, where Arshavin is concerned, the truth has rarely been easy to grasp. Gifted maverick who completed a fairytale rise to the top, or wasted talent who let it all slide when on the edge of greatness; those are just two ways to interpret a body of work that is now, at last, perceivable in completion.

On 11 November, two months shy of a decade after that Islington whiteout, Arshavin played his final competitive game at the age of 37. A career that began during an Intertoto Cup match at Bradford City’s Valley Parade for Zenit St Petersburg reached an even more obscure climax when he appeared for the last 40 minutes of Kairat Almaty’s goalless draw with Shakhter Karagandy. “I want to say thank you for supporting me over these three years,” Arshavin, who had spent that time crossing the steppe to turn out at distant and often desolate venues in the Kazakhstan Premier League, told the crowd. “I hope I left a bit of myself here.”

He certainly did that everywhere he went, although nobody really knows quite how much. Much of the excitement around his arrival at Arsenal stemmed from the suddenness with which he had rocketed to prominence from a faraway haze. He had been around for some while before inspiring Zenit’s Uefa Cup win of 2008 and, most thrillingly of all, Russia’s freewheeling run to the European Championship semi-finals that year; most of his time, though, had been spent out of view in the Russian top flight and the sense was that Arsenal had signed a player who, although now an established, contemporary star, flew in through the blizzard bearing a distinct aura of mystery.

Arshavin’s slaloming first goal against Blackburn was quickly followed by what, even now, seems a dreamlike sequence at Anfield: a scurrying pair of legs appearing at the bottom of the screen in a blur before crashing in his and Arsenal’s fourth goal of the night; a finger raised to the lips once again in trademark celebration that could scarcely conceal his own disbelief.

At that point the feeling around Arshavin was one of limitlessness but, save for a winning goal against Barcelona two years later that ultimately proved a personal and collective false dawn, those moments were as good as it got.

Why was that? Whether consciously or not, Arshavin stopped learning. A year into his time at Arsenal he was asked to reflect on how he had developed at the club. “I think I’m similar really,” he replied. “Young players will of course always improve upon coming to England. But I came here at 27 and already had a lot of experience from earlier in my career.”

It appeared a naive assessment given his surroundings and perhaps explains why the chance to improve under Arsène Wenger was, to all intents and purposes, rejected. Arshavin had, even throughout that 4-4 draw on Merseyside, looked like a player who operated in bursts but the Premier League was no place to carry passengers. To be more than a fly-by-night he needed to track back, cover his man, go the distance in his sprints. It never really happened, despite a reasonably productive first full season in 2009-10; on and off the pitch he increasingly seemed detached, a man set apart, and praise from his peers would become bookended by observations about the aspects he could work harder on once the element of spontaneity had worn thin.

“Ask them,” he would sometimes respond when requested to comment on the team’s performance. After returning from spending the back end of the 2011-12 season on loan at Zenit he proceeded to make 11 more largely despondent appearances for Arsenal, occasionally giving interviews in his car, with the engine humming away, to avoid prying ears at the training ground.

Then it was all over and, via two final seasons at Zenit and a short dalliance with Kuban Krasnodar, he came to that unusual epilogue in Almaty. The common view in Russia is that Arshavin characterised the best elements of a golden generation and the worst of it too: like others who earned big overseas moves he is accused of downing tools, sitting on his laurels, placing destination ahead of ambition.

His stock there dropped sharply after Russia’s group stage exit at Euro 2012, when he snapped at a group of supporters who demanded an apology. Yet for Arshavin the national team had always held an almost disproportionate significance, to the extent that, after Slovenia knocked them out of the 2010 World Cup qualifying play-offs, Wenger was seriously concerned about the intensity of his disappointment.

It all points to a complex character who defies categorisation. During a difficult upbringing in St Petersburg he enjoyed playing chess, a pursuit he believes helped him think logically. He has never been short of opinions, voicing many of them in Q&A sessions on a personal website that would be routinely plundered during his early days in London. Football was one hobby among many: within 12 months at Arsenal he had got through West End performances of Wicked, the Nutcracker and Chicago, never hiding his longstanding interest in fashion and the arts while willingly passing comment on anything from politics to parking tickets.

Perhaps, looking back, a few more platitudes of the kind he offered when leaving Kairat may have served Arshavin well. It always tended to be his way or nobody else’s, a trait that made the man but also ensured the myth appears more satisfying than the reality. Exactly what he took from such a brilliant, bewildering playing career may only become apparent if he chooses coaching as a next step, but the chances have been left typically unclear. “Will you stay in football?” he was asked by the Russian presenter Yevgeny Savin this month. “Probably,” came the reply. And with that Andrey Arshavin was gone: for real, this time.

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