Gervinho Is Primed for a Breakout 2012-13 Season with Arsenal
To understand the circumstances surrounding Gervinho's hot-and-cold first season at the Emirates, one must filter back through time to the 2000-01 season, when a talented 26-year-old Robert Pires first made his way to Arsenal from what has become a well-traveled route from Ligue 1.
The then-Marseille star had been a part of France's 1998 World Cup—and 2000 European Cup-winning sides—and though he hadn't started any of those matches in 2000, he had provided the cross that led to David Trezeguet's superb volleyed winner to defeat Italy 2-1 in the final.
Much was expected, then, when Pires finalized a £6 million transfer to join Arsenal. Marc Overmars had just left for Barcelona, and there was a glaring gap on the wing that needed filling.
It must be said that Pires did little in that first season in an Arsenal shirt to alleviate the wonderful memories of the diminutive, yet scintillating Overmars. He complained that the English game was too physical and looked unable to keep up with its furious pace.
But we all know what Pires eventually became. Not only one of the greatest wingers to play for Arsenal, Pires became one of the most iconic players to feature for Arsene Wenger at Highbury, captivating viewers with his wonderful technique and deadly eye for goal. When fans think of the Invincibles, he's one of the first players to filter to the fore of memory.
Because when he was fit, there were few who could rival him in the capacity to turn a match on its head.
We turn, then, to the latest winger Wenger has brought in from a Ligue 1 side, who endured a disappointing debut to Premier League football.
Gervinho joined Arsenal last summer riding a crest of form that had sustained him since the 2010 World Cup, when he'd been one of Ivory Coast's best performers in their brief showing in South Africa. (It's a testament to his production at the tournament that Stuart Robson, former Arsenal player-turned-commentator, frequently alluded to Gervinho's excellent play at the World Cup. Robson will never be known as someone who ladles out compliments on a whim.)
The lithe winger had been one of Lille's best players in the 2010-11 season that saw Les Dogues snatch a domestic double (Ligue 1 and Coupe de France). In just his second season at the club, Gervinho had tallied 18 goals and 11 assists while forming a devastating partnership with Eden Hazard on the wings.
His play often bordered on the precarious—he was affectionately known as "Le Dribbleur Fou" (The Crazy Dribbler) in France, but he emerged with one of the finer seasons in recent memory. WhoScored included him in its Ligue 1 All-Star team for that season, noting that he had recorded 1.31 key passes per game, accompanying an excellent 80 percent pass rate.
To compound the threat he provided in the attacking third, Gervinho had 2.1 successful dribbles per game that season and averaged 2.2 shots per game. That production was noticed, as he picked up six Man of the Match awards in his 33 Ligue 1 appearances.
Fast-forward to his first season with Arsenal, which many would agree saw Gervinho fail to live up to the hype. His four goals and six assists in 28 Premiership appearances were a decent return, but when viewed in the light of his 2010-11 stats, it's reasonable to assume that more should be expected.
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Yet, a closer look at his statistical production augers well for the coming season. According to WhoScored, Gervinho boasted an 84.7 percent pass completion rate in the Premier League—a number that dipped just one full percentage point, to 83.7, in his five Champions League appearances.
Statistics never tell the whole story, however—as if to prove that point, Manchester United midfielder Michael Carrick famously produced a 90.1 completion rate in Premier League matches this past season by providing some of the most sublime five-foot passes (most of which seemed to come in his own half, to boot) ever seen this side of Sunday-league football.
The pass completion rate would appear to paint a false portrait of Gervinho's debut campaign. It wasn't as successful as his pass accuracy would attest.
The winger's transition from Ligue 1 football was quite difficult, and somewhat disappointing, actually.
While he enjoyed a prosperous preseason (he was excellent in the match against Cologne in July), he was involved in that infamous Joey Barton scuffle in the first match of the season, and despite enjoying a very good October—he had five assists in that month—he tailed off precariously in the second half of the season.
Some of that dip in form can be attributed to his time spent with the Ivory Coast at the African Cup of Nations, which unfortunately falls smack-dab in the middle of the Premier League campaign.
Gervinho left the competition with his head bowed, having missed the penalty in the final that allowed Zambia to claim a historic title. Whether the miss was affecting his play or he was simply fatigued from the tournament, the winger struggled to reintegrate the Arsenal side upon his return in February.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had assumed Gervinho's spot on the left wing for Arsenal and was in the midst of a spellbinding run of form for the club.
The young England winger's production, combined with Yossi Benayoun's own surge of form in the final months, made Gervinho a peripheral figure. He started just three out of a possible 10 matches upon returning from the ACN, contributing just one assist during that span.
WhoScored lists "Aerial duels" as one of Gervinho's weaknesses, and if you found yourself watching Arsenal's match away to Stoke City on April 28, you'd have seen Gervinho miss completely an inch-perfect cross into the area. The image of a fish flopping out of water floated into my mind as I watched Gervinho's less-than-stellar stab at getting a header.
Yet for all the doom and gloom, WhoScored also lists "key passes" and "dribbling" as Gervinho's two greatest attributes. Given that Theo Walcott, the normal starter on the right wing for the Gunners, told Arsenal's official website that "creating assists is my main role," that ability of Gervinho's could come in handy next term.
There's every reason to believe that, with a season of EPL experience under his belt, we'll see more of the Gervinho who once so enthralled Ligue 1 audiences in 2010-11 come August.
By the final game of the just-completed campaign, against West Bromwich Albion, Gervinho was already looking like the dangerous winger many had hoped to see so much more of. He was attacking his defender at pace and getting to the endlines with ease.
Whereas many of those moves ended prematurely earlier in the season, with Gervinho unable to provide a fitting pass or simply running out of ideas, against West Brom he was much more diligent in his movement, much more consistent in his dribbles.
It's an encouraging sign to be sure. And just like we once saw with Pires, who enjoyed one of his finer seasons in an Arsenal uniform in his second crack at the EPL (he helped lead the Gunners to the double in 2001-02), perhaps, we'll witness Gervinho get his own mitts on some silverware one year from now.
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