There used to be a brilliant feature on French TV station Canal Plus a few years back called “Our House.” A presenter would knock on a player’s front door, and get a tour of their house. When Gervinho was at Le Mans, back in 2007, he allowed the cameras in and I still remember him pointing at a DVD that was on his front table and saying to the presenter, “That’s a good film.” She said, “What’s it about?” He replied, “I don’t know, I haven’t seen it yet.”
It was the kind of bizarre and illogical answer that might come as little surprise to Arsenal fans. Gervinho has been a frustrating and unpredictable presence in their forward-line, last season as a left-winger with the task of creating chances for Robin van Persie, and this season as a centre-forward.
His movement creates space for others in the box if he’s not getting on the end of chances himself, but the over-riding sense is that you have no idea if his next shot is heading for the top corner or the top of the stands. If his team-mates don’t know what he’s going to do when he has the ball at his feet, the likelihood is that he doesn’t either.
Wednesday night’s Champions League win over Olympiacos was Gervinho at his most exasperating. He looked disinterested in the first half-hour before he scored a decent goal from outside the area. Minutes after that, he watched on as Greco, the left-midfielder he was meant to be marking, crossed for Kostas Mitroglu to head in an equaliser. As Tim Payton, spokesman for the Arsenal Supporters’ Trust tweeted during the game: “Anyone else find Gervinho even more exasperating now that he is occasionally good?”
If anything, Gervinho was hampered by the weight of expectation after he joined Arsenal from Lille 15 months ago. “Just you wait, he is going to destroy defenders,” said Thierry Henry. Gervinho was the only player in France to reach double figures for goals (15) and assists (10) in 2010-11, the season Lille won the title, which is a rarer feat than you might think (only three players, Robin van Persie, 30 goals/12 assists, Emmanuel Adebayor, 17/12, and Gareth Bale, 10/13, managed the same in last season’s Premier League). “It’s those two statistics together that people fail to underline,” said Rudi Garcia, his former coach at Le Mans and Lille.
But while his introduction to English football was not quite as tough as it was to the French game (when he moved to Le Mans from Beveren in 2007, then-coach Frederic Hantz knew nothing about the player who interrupted training one morning and introduced himself to his new team-mates as he had been signed by sports director Daniel Jeandupeux (Hantz left that summer and Garcia replaced him)), he was sent off on his Arsenal debut, a draw at Newcastle, for a brawl with Joey Barton.
He was suspended for three games and his first goal in an Arsenal shirt came in late-October, his tenth match. It would take another eight games to next find the net. “I went through some difficult moments but I never let my head drop,” is how he put it. In seven games this season, Gervinho has already bettered last season’s 37-game tally of four goals.
So what has changed? Two things: one, he is physically stronger than last season, more robust in challenges and has the stamina and willing to help the team defensively. Think of previous Ligue 1 graduates to have succeeded in the Premier League, and some of the best needed a season to build up their strength: Robert Pires, Patrice Evra, Samir Nasri. “In England, you need to be at your physical peak and I have worked hard in training to improve my strength,” he said. “That’s vital for me, I need power.”
Then there is his position. He did play as an out-and-out winger last season but this year he has slotted in where Van Persie played, but with freedom to drift around the area and allow the likes of Santi Cazorla and Lukas Podolski to break into the area as well. The idea of a winger being converted into a striker sits well at Arsenal (that’s where Henry started out, after all) and Wenger joked after Gervinho’s two goals in the 6-1 win over Southampton: “You know that we transform all wingers into centre-forwards here! Seriously though, he is so fast that he’s hard for the defenders to catch.”
Gervinho is not really the type of player who fits a Wenger profile: yes, he can have good technique, as he showed with his excellent goal against Chelsea, but it can also let him down, as it did with a heavy touch when through on goal against Manchester City. Sometimes he appears to switch off, his decision-making can be strange, and he can beat three men but over-hit a cross behind the goal. These are the frustrations that come with picking an unpredictable player. For all Wenger’s foibles, he must be praised for sticking with a footballer for whom improvisation is such a key part of his game.
“Every time you change club, you become a different player and my game has changed a little,” Gervinho admitted. He may still drive Arsenal fans crazy, but his form this season suggests that Wenger’s work in progress is coming along nicely.