On 23 February 2017, Russian side Krylya Sovetov faced Kazakh side Kairat Almaty in a behind closed doors friendly. Kairat won the game 1-0 thanks to a goal from Brazilian Isael Barbosa. On paper this friendly had next to no significance but for Arsenal fans it signalled the meeting of two of the great what if’s of recent years, Andrey Arshavin and Alexander Hleb.
Two men who, had things been different, may have starred together for Arsenal, Hleb on the right, Arshavin on the left. A team containing Hleb, Arshavin and perhaps Cesc Fàbregas and Robin van Persie could legitimately have held a claim as one of Europe’s most talented. Instead, the two never played together and now, both at the age of 35, they met under far less glamorous surroundings.
Arshavin and Hleb share many similarities. Both are exceedingly gifted, Hleb a wonderfully languid, selfless dribbler and creator, and Arshavin a more dynamic, maverick talent capable of moments of sheer genius. Both are the same age – Hleb is just 28 days older. Both had to answer questions of fragility and came to synonymise that era at Arsenal: weak, both physically and mentally, but on their day as good to watch as anything on the continent. But sadly, both, had they been given the opportunity, would have done things differently in their respective careers.
When Alexander Hleb arrived on English shores people didn’t know what to make of him. He had a good reputation within Germany but in 2005 the British knowledge of the Bundesliga was nowhere near that of today. For a start, most people didn’t see much of Bundesliga teams regularly. Aside from Champions League games, they weren’t on our screens as much, and ultimately players like Hleb arrived in England as relative unknowns in the eyes of many.
Of course, within Germany they knew what a special talent he was. Signed in 2000 for just €150,000 along with his brother Vyacheslav, in the space of five years Hleb finished second in the Bundesliga, defeated Manchester United in the Champions League and finished his final season top of the assist charts.
His time in London saw a slower start. Fans weren’t sure what mould of player Hleb was. With his unusual dribbling style, in which he never looked like he was in complete control, and his rolled down socks, Hleb was a player English football had rarely seen. He had a complete reluctance to shoot and would much rather look for someone else, much like the conundrum that Mesut Özil has faced since arriving.
The Belarusian was an extremely selfless player and would best be described as what Johan Cruyff labelled El socio del todos – everyone’s partner on the pitch. Give Hleb the ball and he will keep it and give you it back. He was, however, weak and physically didn’t look cut out for the bustle of the Premier League. Arsène Wenger, it seemed, didn’t know his strongest position either and an injury on international duty put him out of action for a few months.
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By the turn of the year, things had changed and Hleb had begun to cement himself as first choice in that wide right position, and by the end of the year finished with 40 appearances as he helped Arsenal reach the Champions League final, becoming the first Belarusian to do so.
Gooners saw the best of Hleb in his third season at the club. Following the departure of Thierry Henry, there wasn’t much optimism around the club and departures of José Antonio Reyes and Freddie Ljungberg to Atlético Madrid and West Ham only heightened the anxiety. Arsenal brought in just two major signings, Bacary Sagna and Eduardo da Silva; this was Wenger putting huge faith in Hleb and co.
Arsenal led the league for two-thirds of the year and, had Eduardo not broken his leg in February and the season not subsequently unravel, may have even won the league. Arsenal didn’t win the league but nobody expected them to even make the top four, and along the way they played some of the best football of Wenger’s Arsenal career. Players like Hleb, Fàbregas, Rosický and van Persie all flourished and it’s no coincidence that Emmanuel Adebayor had the best season of his career. Hleb left for Barcelona at the end of the season and, although a promising move on the surface, things from there on didn’t work out as planned.
As this was all going on, Andrey Arshavin was coming off the back of winning the Uefa Cup with Zenit Saint Petersburg and preparing to be Russia’s talisman at Euro 2008. Arshavin was entering the tournament after two years of being the undisputed jewel of Russian football.
Zenit’s title win in 2007 and Uefa Cup triumph featured Arshavin as the team’s creative hub. Scouts from across Western Europe were circling but doubted whether Arshavin had the physique and mentality to flourish under a more intense climate. Euro 2008 would be Arshavin’s chance to announce himself to the world.
The finals would be Arshavin’s tournament debut for Russia, missing out in 2002 through selection and in 2004 and 2006 as Russia failed to qualify. More frustratingly for Arshavin, he harshly missed the first two games through suspension and his first tournament match would be a winner-takes-all affair with Sweden. Arshavin wasted no time in leaving his mark, scoring in the 2-0 win and winning the man of the match award from UEFA.
The quarter-final match against the Netherlands would arguably be the greatest modern performance of the Russian national team. The Dutch were one of the teams of the tournament going into the game, winning all three games including 3-0 and 4-1 wins over Italy and France.
Arshavin, however, had other plans and was sublime as he led Russia to an improbable result, recovering from a late Dutch equaliser to win 3-1 after extra time. Arshavin assisted the second and then scored the third, once more winning UEFA’s man of the match in the process. The semi-final against Spain was an understandable step too far but Arshavin’s heroics caught the eye. The Russian was named in the team of the tournament and, except for Xavi and perhaps David Villa, was the player of the tournament.
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The summer of 2008 was a tough one for Arshavin. Despite finishing sixth in the voting for the Ballon d’Or, it was one of frustration. The midfielder expressed his willingness to move as a number of giants in European football pursued him, but Zenit were reluctant to sell until at least the end of the Russian league season in December.
A dream move to Barcelona was touted, who reportedly had a bid rejected by Zenit. As such, by January, fewer top clubs were interested and the only real option was Arsenal. His first half season in London showed the promise of what was a special talent. His first goal for the club, against Blackburn, epitomised the skill the Russian possessed. Speed, unpredictability, balance and above all quality were all on show as he faked and feinted his way past Danny Simpson before lifting the ball over Paul Robinson at his near post.
Most remember his four goals at Anfield soon after, but I just want to dwell briefly on the fourth. It may be an exaggeration but I honestly don’t think there were many players on the planet who could have scored that goal. With 90 minutes gone, to have the speed to even keep up with a fresh Theo Walcott on the counter is astonishing. Then to receive the ball on his left foot, take one touch and then slot the ball past Pepe Reina on your weaker foot took skill, balance and confidence few have. To have such presence of mind and thought after 90 minutes, after already scoring three goals and after running the length of the pitch, is remarkable.
By the end of his first six months in England, Arshavin finished second in Arsenal’s Player of the Year award, despite playing half a season. Sadly, such initial promise would never fully materialise.
If you were to define the Russian’s Arsenal career, it would be one of glimpses. Glimpses of sheer brilliance, but sadly only glimpses; never months or seasons of consistency. And if there was one moment that surpasses even Anfield, it must be his winner against Barcelona.
With the scores locked at 1-1 and just over five minutes to go, Arshavin produced possibly the greatest moment at the Emirates. The diminutive playmaker was thrown on with over 20 minutes to go to rescue the game against Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering Barça side.
Fàbregas received the ball on the turn and stroked it out to Samir Nasri on the right wing. Nasri took a few touches and waited for support. Spotting Arshavin coming in off the left, he rolled the ball across the edge of the box to the Russian to run onto. Time seemed to stop. Everyone had that split second to hold their breath to see what the Russian would do.
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Just like at Anfield, under the circumstances, the presence of mind from Arshavin was astounding. With the ball coming towards him and the crowd expectant, to have the awareness and technique to just calmly curl the ball around Éric Abidal was sublime and epitomised a player who throughout his career played the game at his own pace.
People may look back on Arshavin with frustration and a myriad of questions. What if he worked harder? What if he made more of an effort to settle and make an impact? They may be true but ultimately Arshavin produced moments that will never be forgotten. Four goals at Anfield (he scored the winner there the following season as well), a 25-yarder at Old Trafford and of course that Barcelona goal.
It goes far beyond Arsenal in that throughout his career, Arshavin seemed to produce his best moments on the grandest stages. And for all the talk of failed promise and potential, that’s why he will always live in the memory. Mavericks always do.
Sadly for Hleb and Arshavin, Arsenal would be the pinnacle of each of their club careers. Arshavin never delivered after his first season at the Emirates and his decline physically became evident. As such, his return to Zenit, where he had far from the impact as his first spell, and subsequent travels across the region are sad but not wholly unexpected.
Hleb struggled for confidence and fitness at Barcelona and loan spells at Stuttgart and Birmingham didn’t help the player who admitted he wished he’d never left London. Ironically, both players’ careers are left with question marks in the scenario of Barcelona and Arsenal. What if Hleb never left Arsenal for Barcelona and stayed in London for another couple of years at the least. Hleb surely would have combined well with new talents like Nasri, Walcott and a prime van Persie. Might Hleb have gone down as a modern Arsenal hero?
As for Arshavin. it pains me to suggest this due to his cult status at the club, but what if he never signed for Arsenal? A move to Barcelona six months earlier to play under Guardiola and perhaps alongside Hleb may have been what he needed. If any team or manager could get Arshavin to focus and to prepare as best he can, surely Barcelona and Guardiola in their prime were that.
Ultimately, though, there’s no value in speculating over what might have been. Instead, we can reminisce over two players that undoubtedly should have left a greater mark and perhaps have been amongst the best of their generation. The mark they did leave, however, was one brimming with talent and genius and that will long be remembered
By Ross Carr @Rosscarr19