Wednesday, September 26, 2012

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Gervinho?

A good test of a manager's eye for ability can be found in the tough decision over whether or not to give up on a rising talent. The siren song of "potential" and "upside" are always there to clutch tight, but at some point in a player's career their rise up the ranks will stop. It is only a question of where. Some players will fight through disappointment and rise to play at the highest level of the sport, such as Robin Van Persie in 2011-2012. Others will come to a team with expectations that they will grow into a permanent spot, but flame out before getting there like Carlos Vela did. The toughest kind of decision, however, is what to do with a player once he has proven himself good enough to play, but still has too many holes in his game to warrant a permanent starting spot. That seems to be the situation Arsene Wenger is in with Gervinho and it has become a full-on debate.

Going into this year, it seemed that the Gervinho issue was more or less settled in the minds of fans. He was fine as a depth winger, suitable to playing in league cup matches or spelling an established starter. With Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott ahead on the depth chart, plus the addition of Lukas Podolski to the left hand side of the pitch, the Ivorian international seemed to have reached his peak as a second choice winger and an impact sub. But Walcott moved into the manager's doghouse due to a contract dispute that he swears isn't about the money and Chamberlain is seeing limited playing time while being brought back very slowly from a minor injury, so Gervinho has had the chance to start both on the wing and at striker. The move up front caught most everyone by surprise, but even more shocking were the two goals that he scored against Southampton in his debut at the new position. The usual warnings were thrown out again. "He's always been inconsistent, so this is par for the course." "The opponent didn't know what to expect from him, which'll tail off with some scouting." "It was only Southampton." But even from the most jaded observers, these warnings sounded instead like the mantra of a child when something seems too good to be true, as if people were trying to convince themselves not to get too excited about the resurgence of a player they had written off. At the very least, the debate about Gervinho was reborn.

More than anything, the former Lille man brings pace to the table. He was brought into Arsenal as a winger precisely so he could receive the ball in space and run at defenders who would hopefully be too slow to adjust to his speed. This plan proved to be unreliable though for one main reason: his horrible, horrible decision making. At his best, Gervinho would burn past a man, get to the endline, and cut the ball back across to a wide open Van Persie, using his speed and ability to draw defenders to create for his teammates. The problem is that this was a Platonic ideal, once that never seemed to manifest itself in our reality. Too often we saw the incomplete version of this form: the strong touch that sent the ball out of bounds or into a waiting tackle; the "two steps behind the man" pass that wasted all previous efforts; the laughable attempt at finishing that never came near the frame. Gervinho's movement was intelligent and his natural abilities allowed him to execute the set-up for his grand designs, but his nerves or his brains or some other unknown malfunction almost always led to the rocket never getting off the launch pad.

The match against Southampton created more hope than the expected shrug and "wow, he finally put it together for once" comment because he was being used as a striker, a position he had never seen playing time at prior. When he turned in a two goal performance up front and then followed it up with a goal against Montpelier in the Champions League (while playing on the right wing, it should be noted), people began to wonder if this would lead to a reemergence. After all, it is an easy thing to talk yourself into in hindsight, especially if you are actively looking to be encouraged. He's still only 25 years old. He's only had one season to acclimate to the Premier League. He has loads of talent but was missing that final step. He might have been disheartened knowing he was down in the pecking order on the wing. The after-the-fact rationale could go on and on, but the basic idea was that this could be the start of something new.

Then there was the away match versus Manchester City, the game that sobered up any fans who were drunk on belief in their Comeback Kid. There are two quintessential Gervinho moments in this match that need to be mentioned from here on out in any analysis. One is the run in the 15th minute or so where Gervinho dashed into space to receive a perfectly weighted ball... only to give it an absurdly heavy touch and let Joe Hart scoop up the mistake without even facing a shot on goal.  The other is the chance in front of goal with less than 15 minutes left in the match that he skied and sliced to waste the best chance the Gunners would have of winning. This was Gervinho at his most Gervinhoest (Gervinhiest? Gervinhoesque?), at least as pessimistic fans have come to see him. Two golden platter chances and two complete blowups. He didn't force a save, he didn't ring it off the post, he didn't drop it to a teammate for them to miss. He never even came close.

The forgotten part of this focus on results only is that very few other Gunners could have put themselves in a position to receive that first pass in order to blunder it into the keeper. Yes, Gervinho botched that chance. But he only botched it because he got there in the first place, similar to a keeper who makes a great play to get to a nigh-unstoppable free kick but then mistimes the punch and looks like a fool. The second chance, however, probably would have been finished by any of the other attacking players who don't possess Aaron Ramsey's instinct for flubbing shots in the box. That was a made for tv moment type of goal where a player gets free, the home fans are screaming for someone to close him down, he rips the shot inside the left post past Hart at full extension, and the Gunners celebrate a gutty, impressive away win against the former champions thanks to the most natural of dramatic circumstances. Except instead, the player ended the moment in the saddest possible way. It reminded me of Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown, or maybe Zoidberg's slinky. Within every argument for why you have to have Gervinho on the pitch seems to be a reason for why he can never be there.

Unfortunately, we are no nearer to an answer now than when we started all of this just like we don't know Gervinho any better now than we did two weeks ago. We don't know if he's a still developing talent or a bench player. We don't know if he learned how to finish or if he got lucky over a short span. We certainly don't know whether he's true Arsenal material or if he's never going to be more than what he is now. Thankfully it's Arsene Wenger that has to make that decision, not us. Let's hope he doesn't duff it to the keeper.

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