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Arshavin and Arsenal / Lift in a Dark Light

There’s some muttering out there that this was a mistake, that they needed a hard defensive midfielder or an Easter Island centerback, that all this does is create a selection headache and prove that Wenger doesn’t know how to spend money. Before I take the opposite view and tell you why I haven’t been this excited about a transfer since I don’t remember when, let me state for the record that I’m an Arshavin skeptic from way back. Just so this doesn’t look like some kind of player-advocacy case.

The problem with the Arshavin critique is that it assumes that self-correction is the highest purpose of the transfer window. If your team is scoring goals but also conceding them, you buy a defender. If the seesaw is tilted forward, you buy the right to lean back. And because the normative chorus in sports is always focused on the most successful moment of the recent past—the moment when a team was least susceptible to criticism—the self-correction everyone wants is usually the one that brings, say, 2003 back to life, with some purple smoke and a golden bottle. In 2003, Arsenal had Patrick Vieira, while today, they have William Gallas in his Poor-Tom’s-a-cold stage. So their tax-return proper January move would be to bring in some stone sequel of their ex-captain who could give them that “combative presence in midfield” that they currently delicately lack.

Fine. But as true as all this is, it strikes me as not just shortsighted, but rising to the level of the civilized clerk in the Western movie after his spectacles are slapped away by one of the outlaw’s goons. That’s especially—maybe uniquely—the case with this move. With possibly one or two exceptions (Messi, maybe, but the club he’s playing for is already at least as Arsenal as Arsenal, if that makes sense) Andrei Arshavin is the most Arsenal player on earth. I mean that as a matter of style (those twisty-lethal, quietly thundering runs), of mentality (“I think I will think about attacking,” he said, almost too perfectly, when Arsenal TV asked where Wenger intended to play him), of cognate words (Arsène, Arshavin, Arsenal; it’s getting a little carnivalesque), of biography (intimations of magic, a total lack of certainty). In every way, including cost, this is an Arsenal transfer blown up out of all normal proportions, and it has a crazy tension that an Arshavin move to Milan or Real Madrid wouldn’t have. This isn’t a correction from Arsène Wenger. It’s an act of escalation.

And that’s what I love about it, and why I’m desperate for it to work, even though I don’t really expect it to. Arsenal have stood for something over the last ten years in a way that no other club, certainly no other English club, can claim. Now, about to be done in by what everyone else thinks is an excess of the virtues that have taken them this far, they’re stepping on the gas. They’re saying, in effect, that they’re not about to go falling over the cliff because they’re driving in the wrong direction. They’re about to go falling over the cliff because they aren’t driving fast enough.

This is what I don’t understand about all the talk about selection headaches and whether they’ll line up Arshavin behind the midfield to help shore up the back four. To me, that’s missing the whole point of the transfer. Why bother to buy him at all if he’s not supposed to be transfiguring? If they wanted Lasanna Diarra, why would they have sold him in the first place? This line is being taken by a lot of journalists I like, but when I see Gabriele Marcotti writing this:

OK, so Andrey Arshavin is finally an Arsenal player. Great. We all saw what he could do at Euro 2008. If Arsene Wenger was ready to splash the cash to this degree, it shows he obviously believes in him. But what’s going to be fascinating is where he puts him in this Arsenal side. No matter where he puts him, somebody’s going to lose out. Somebody out of Robin Van Persie, Emanuel Adebayor, Samir Nasri, Cesc Fabregas and Theo Walcott (when the latter two are fit again) is going to lose out. How Wenger handles that will provide an education in football management.

I want to ask whether everyone else saw the same Euro 2008 I saw. Because the Arshavin that pulsar-bombed Sweden and Holland in that tournament wasn’t a player you’d worry about fitting in around Samir Nasri’s playing time. Everyone on Marcotti’s list is obviously good, stylish, effective (partially, in the case of Theo Walcott) and suited to Arsenal—maybe more, in every category, than Arshavin will turn out to be. But if you’re spending sixteen million pounds on Arshavin, you’re not doing it to get a slightly out-of-place holding midfielder who can co-exist with Theo Walcott, you’re doing it in the hope and belief that those hints he gave in Euro 2008 are about to be fulfilled, that he’s going to remake your team as a more intense, faster, flashier, crueler, more angular version of what it already is. If this transfer works, Arshavin isn’t going to be a useful player on a list of useful players. He’s going to be the stake that gave a wayward team an identity. He’s going to be a wonderment.

As I said, I’m not brightly disposed enough to expect this to work out. I’ve made the “his stats weren’t that good in a substantively worse league” argument myself on multiple occasions. But I would love it, love it with Kevin Keegan urgency, if I were wrong, and the visionary move turned out to be the tactically right one. Maybe I’m overstating all this, and I should actually be using a middle rhetoric and not setting expectations too high. But Arsenal are supposed to be the club that believes in beautiful possibilities. And more than any other player I can think of, and regardless of how much they were tarnished by the endless, tedious transfer negotiations, Arshavin has beautiful possibilities surrounding him like a constellation.

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Arshavin and Arsenal / Lift in a Dark Light

by Brian Phillips · February 4, 2009

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