Frustrating Arshavin ends his inconsistent tenure at Arsenal
Arsenal's signing of Andrey Arshavin in January 2009 was hailed as a coup
Initially Arshavin was a huge hit, scoring 4 goals against Liverpool in one game
The past 18 months has seen Arshavin appear unmotivated and disinterested
Andrey Arshavin's exit is yet another messy-looking piece of Arsenal transfer business, with the player's loan move to Zenit St Petersburg finalized Friday in the last minutes of the last day of the Russian transfer window, less than 48 hours before Sunday's North London derby.
Arshavin's departure with a view to a permanent summer move will be overshadowed by the force of the collision with Tottenham, but it is a significant symbol of the club's gradual decline and creeping depression. A little bit of hope has left with him, because he was one of the few remaining pedigree players. His excellence was in the past, but at least it was proven. There was a chance, however thin, that he might find what he has lost.
Just last month, Arsene Wenger had insisted that Arshavin would not leave: "on top of our injuries, we cannot lose players of that quality. It is too difficult," he said to reporters. But these days the Arsenal manager's transfer talk appears to come with only a one-month guarantee -- also see Nasri, Samir.
The Russian's purchase three years ago seemed portentous, regenerative, proof that Arsenal was still a Big Club. Tottenham had tried and failed to sign him from Zenit, his hometown team, earlier in the season. His reputation still shone in the afterglow of a wonderful Euro 2008, in which he tormented then terminated the Netherlands with an assist and a goal in a 3-1 quarterfinal win for Russia after extra time.
Arsenal was toiling in fifth place in the Premier League at the time, behind Aston Villa, but Wenger uncharacteristically spent a club-record £15 million ($23M) in the oft-quiet winter window on a star in his prime. Arsenal was still in the FA Cup and Champions League. The squad was patchy yet boasted improving talents such as Nasri, Cesc Fabregas, Theo Walcott and some squirt named Jack Wilshere. Pessimism had not yet trumped optimism among the fan base.
Here was a welcome addition to English soccer: a quirky, clever forward, curious-inquisitive and curious-odd. A man with a fashion diploma and his own line of ladies' garments, making him that rare thing, a Premier League player who wants to clothe women he barely knows rather than undress them.
His technique, speed and impudence made him a snug fit with Arsenal's style. His personal website, arshavin.eu, earned cult status thanks to his idiosyncratic post-match analysis and nutty Q&A sessions with fans. (Question: "Andrey, are you frightened of bears?" Answer: "On the contrary, I like bears.")
On April 21, 2009, Arshavin scored four times against Liverpool in a 4-4 draw at Anfield, a freakish event which proved a yardstick to beat him with. In the following season he was, like all flair players, bad some days, brilliant on others. Then he ceased to be fitful and become something far worse: average. Quietly, glumly, mediocre.
Dribbles became trickles, shots were poked not placed and his don't-work ethic began to irk fans well aware that their team's indefensible defense needed all the help it could get. Once-magical tricks now looked mechanical.
Given his résumé, Arsenal might have expected Arshavin to be part of the solution rather than the problem. But a squad in need of veteran leadership found none from the 30-year-old captain of Russia. A squad desperate to understand how to win trophies were not taught the knack by someone who lifted the 2008 UEFA Cup with Zenit.
Sadly for English soccer, Arshavin's most passionate performance in the past 18 months came on stage in Zurich as he pleaded with the good folk of FIFA to let Russia stage the 2018 World Cup finals. His slide mirrors the team's: from perky and joyful to labored and anxious.
Wenger's refusal to upbraid his players in public has become increasingly ludicrous given recent results. In backing Arshavin last month he imparted more spin than a politician in a centrifuge.
"If you look at his numbers you are always surprised at how good he is. Sometimes the visual impression you get from a game has been frustrating, but he is very efficient," the manager said to reporters. By the way, Arsenal passed the ball more often and more accurately than AC Milan in the Champions League last week. And lost 4-0.
The only figures that truly matter are that this season Arshavin made 14 of his 27 club appearances off the bench and scored just twice -- against Bolton in the Carling Cup and a winner against Swansea last September donated by a tragicomic goalkeeping error.
And there was a noisy sonic impression: the boos that rang like tinnitus round the Emirates as Wenger weirdly brought him on for the rambunctious Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain late in last month's defeat by Manchester United. Out with the new and in with the old. It was the moment when the couturier definitively went out of fashion.
And given his sharp depreciation on the pitch and as a balance-sheet asset, will Wenger in future be even more reluctant to do what he must: override his instincts and spend heavily on established names? Fantastical but delicate, Arshavin arrived as a statement of intent and leaves as a sign of decay.
Tom Dart is a U.S.-based freelance journalist and a former soccer writer for The Times of London. He can be followed on Twitter at @Tom_Dart.