Andrey Arshavin was on another plane of thought to his teammates, but lost the ability to express his genius. How exactly that happened, nobody seems to know.
Illustration by Dan Evans
This week's inductee to The Cult is a man who was on another plane of thought to his teammates, but lost the ability to express his genius. You can read previous entries here.
Cult Grade: Genius Savant
"My time in London was an alright part of my career. There were some good moments and there were some not particularly nice ones." While this might seem like a fairly anodyne statement, it nonetheless shines a light into the inscrutable depths of Andrey Arshavin's mind. For many footballers, four years spent playing for Arsenal – making 144 appearances and scoring 31 goals in the process – would represent a career highlight, a whole host of treasured memories and a source of great personal and professional pride. For Arshavin, it was fine, but nothing to get too excited about. He liked living in London, sure, but the football was a bit inconvenient in the end so he decided to pack it in and scoot off home.
Even at his very best, there was a sense in which Arshavin was not on quite the same wavelength as his fellow footballers. He was on another plane of thought – not a higher plane, necessarily, but somewhere otherworldly and far away. While his teammates were lounging around the VIP tables in Mahiki or jetting off on weekend breaks in Dubai, Arshavin was hunched over his laptop participating in bizarre Q&A sessions on his now tragically discontinued website. He was probably paying an intermediary to do the hunching, mind, but the point still stands that he was investing his time in answering questions about the collapse of the USSR, his fear of dentists, his disdain for women's football and his fondness for bears.
Arshavin clearly had cerebral and intellectual pretensions, which were not perhaps entirely unfounded. He played draughts at a regional level as a child and also tried his hand at chess, which in an interview with The Telegraph in 2009 he credited with teaching him "to think logically." We can assume his critical thinking abilities were temporarily suspended when he reportedly said that women should be banned from driving, this in addition to several other casually chauvinistic comments made down the years. "In my opinion a woman and a man are two absolutely different creatures" was another of his pseudish musings on gender, a position endorsed by hawkers of conventional wisdom but unlikely to earn anyone a biology degree.
Thankfully, the diminutive Russian didn't need such a qualification, because by the time he arrived in England he already had a fashion degree from the St Petersburg State University of Technology and Design. He is also a published author in Russia having released a book titled 555 Questions and Answers on Women, Money, Politics and Football, which given what we already know about his wacky, off-the-wall opinions may best be left on the highest possible shelf. It might also be worth taking his advice on the beautiful game with a pinch of salt, with his career hardly a model example to the next generation of overseas imports. Indeed, some clues to his mentality on the pitch may be found in his motivations for secondary education, as told to The Daily Mail the same year he joined Arsenal: "My friends and I decided to try for the technology and design institute, because there were lots of girls among the students and you didn't have to study too hard."
Though Arshavin was a genius of sorts with the ball at his feet, hard graft was never really his forte. On a good day, when the rest of the team were at their best, he was a cultured attacking dilettante with an elegant first touch, sly final ball and a discerning eye for goal. On a bad day, he looked existentially and spiritually lost at Arsenal, wandering listlessly about the wing as the team slumped to some needless defeat at Sunderland, or Wigan, or Blackburn Rovers. In the way that only a modern Arsenal wide man can, he often seemed to be playing with some vast spatial disconnect between him and the rest of the team, an aching void opened up by his notable lack of movement and apparent refusal to go forwards and backwards in quick succession.
In fairness to Arshavin, he was part of a distinctly limited side at Arsenal. The defensive shortcomings of his teammates exacerbated his own foibles, and in his first couple of seasons he regularly found himself featuring alongside the likes of Denilson, Alex Song and Nicklas Bendtner, none of whom were reputed for their high-energy game. There was also much debate over his best position, with Arsene Wenger persisting with him as a winger despite his inconsistent showings. In his glory days with Zenit St Petersburg, he had often been deployed as a second striker or an out-and-out attacking midfielder, but at Arsenal he was accommodated on the wing in a manner which certainly didn't flatter him once he started to struggle with fitness and pace.
Having been a revelation at times in his first season and a half in North London, Arshavin seemed to have issues with his weight while losing motivation and form simultaneously. Though the fitness issues may have had something to do with his age – he was almost 28 when he joined the club – there was a feeling among supporters that something deeper and more problematic was going on. Pictures from the training ground and stories from the dressing room painted Arshavin as a sort of comedy figure, a grinning trickster cracking jokes which his teammates never quite understood or appreciated. His body language when things got tough on the pitch could not have been more different, with the St Petersburg native looking little short of miserable as he ambled about the touchline in front of frustrated fans.
In that sense, it seemed as if there was some sort of psychological dissonance on show with Arshavin. He was the class clown while at the same time looking fundamentally isolated from those around him, and this discomforting state of affairs gradually began to corrode his game. Whether he lacked the emotional intelligence required to bond with his teammates – as some of his baffling public comments might suggest – or whether he struggled to overcome cultural, social and linguistic barriers in the dressing room, it was as if there was some mental barrier which stopped him from showing the best of his abilities. Speaking in 2013 soon after he had returned to Zenit, he claimed that he had "nearly suffered depression" owing to his inevitable slide towards benchwarmer status in his last two seasons at Arsenal, but managed to stave it off "because I'm mentally strong."
While we can probably add mental health to the list of topics on which Arshavin holds outmoded opinions, the idea that he became increasingly unhappy in England is one way of explaining his enigmatic decline. There are many who will stick to the conclusion that Arshavin lacked effort and application, and the truth is that we will never know for sure what exactly caused his personal malaise. There are some former teammates who remember him fondly, not least fellow joker Emmanuel Frimpong, who in a 2014 interview with Sports.ru told a likely story about Arshavin being asked to move about more during a match, and telling Arsene Wenger: "I do not run." Then again, there are no doubt other ex-teammates whose memories of Arshavin leave them feeling either nonplussed or completely bemused.
For what it's worth, Wenger was only ever complimentary about Arshavin's work ethic, even if he was less enthused with his new signing when he appeared to flirt opportunistically with Barcelona early on in his Arsenal career. That was one of many moments in which Arshavin showed a less than impeccable sense of tact, but he was staunchly defended throughout his spell in North London by the man who signed him for a club record fee. Sadly, the endorsement of Arsene Wenger is not worth as much as it once was, in part because of the acquisition of players like Arshavin. In becoming an expensive underachiever at Arsenal, the little Russian was in many ways the archetypal signing of the latter days of Wenger's reign.
When Arshavin arrived at Arsenal, he was the first big signing for several years in the aftermath of the club's relocation to the Emirates. It was a sign of the purse strings loosening slightly and – with stadium debt being managed ever downwards – Arsene Wenger being given the resources to work his magic in the transfer market once more. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, the magic evaporated with Arshavin, who left the club in 2013 a pale imitation of the player who had arrived four years earlier. Much like late-era Wenger himself, Arshavin was a genius savant whose talents were cruelly destined to fade.
Point of Entry: Four!
No matter how disappointing Arshavin's time in North London seems when viewed as a whole, his impact in that first season and a half was undeniably glorious. He was signed during a purple patch in his form which dated back to Euro 2008, when he had spearheaded a Russia side that captured the imagination with a swashbuckling run to the semi-finals. Joining Arsenal not long after Roman Pavlyuchenko had linked up with Tottenham, Arshavin made a much faster start than his compatriot in North London. He set up a goal for Kolo Toure in a win over West Brom, scored from a ludicrous angle against Blackburn and after another goal against Wigan, showed the true scope of his potential on a thrilling night at Anfield.
That game epitomised the Arsenal side of the time, in that despite four wonderful goals from Arshavin the end result was an unlikely draw. The dropped points took nothing away from his performance, however, which suggested he could take Arsenal to the fabled next level. He found space where there was none, he finished spectacularly and he toyed with an excellent Liverpool side who would only narrowly miss out on the title that term. Players of the calibre of Jamie Carragher, Javier Mascherano and Alvaro Arbeloa simply couldn't handle him, with Arshavin stealing the ball off the latter for his rifled second goal.
That game was probably the pinnacle of Arshavin's time in the Premier League, which says everything about his career trajectory. He peaked after roughly two months, and things went progressively downhill from there. Now, those four goals against Liverpool are most often spoken about in the same breath as Arshavin's last few feeble performances at Arsenal, a sad contrast which adds to his air of unrealised genius. When did Arshavin lose the ability to express himself, and why? The answer remains an intricate puzzle, from which we are missing crucial pieces to this day.
The Moment: Arsenal vs. Barcelona, February 2011
Among those pieces, one we do have is Arshavin's matchwinning intervention against Barcelona in 2011. By the time Arsenal came up against the Blaugrana in the first leg of the Champions League Round of 16, Arshavin's form was already ebbing, with his performances drawing groans from supporters here and there. In a season where he played a total of 52 times, his numbers were still fairly respectable, and somewhat masked the body language of boredom and lethargy which was increasingly apparent to those in the stands. So too was his general decline disguised by a euphoric goal against Barca, with the Russian curling home from the edge of the box after a lightning counter-attack and celebrating with his shirt over his head like a guileless little boy.
Much as the signing of Arshavin seemed like it could be a turning point for Arsenal, so too did that magnificent triumph over what was then the best team on the continent. Not long afterwards Arsene Wenger was quizzed on whether Arsenal could win the quadruple, and confidently refused to rule them out. Instead, they were out of contention on all four fronts within a month, losing at Camp Nou, bottling the League Cup Final, drawing crucial games in the league and finally crashing out of the FA Cup to Manchester United. While Arshavin cannot be held more culpable than anyone else, his showings are perhaps best described as symptomatic of the team of the time.
"I need to have emotion to play. Emotion makes me hungry. I must prove every game that I am still strong."
– Andrey Arshavin, speaking to The Telegraph in 2009. At some point, that emotion waned.