Gervinho's Excellent Preseason Form a Terrific Sign for Arsenal
This was a man, after all, who arrived at the Emirates brimming with confidence after a 2010-11 season in which he'd chalked up 18 goals and 11 assists (all competitions) while leading Lille to a historic league and cup double.
Notorious for his wending runs on the wings, Gervinho was labeled "Le Dribbleur Fou" (The Crazy Dribbler) by French newspaper L'Equipe during the 2009-10 season, his first in the northern French city.
It was an apt descriptor, as the forward was frequently at his best when allowed the freedom to roam about the attacking third, putting defenses under pressure with his incisive cuts, transcendent control and predatory finishing.
It stood to reason, then, that many an Arsenal fan awaited his contributions on the field with bated breath.
Here was the sort of dynamic attacking threat from a wing position that had been missing ever since Andrei Arshavin's confidence up and left him in the final days of 2009.
A Mixed Bag at the Start of Last Season
Gervinho's bust-up with then-Newcastle United midfielder Joey Barton in Arsenal's season opener at St. James Park has been well-documented, and it was a telling indicator of the Ivorian's inexperience at the Premier League level that he allowed himself to be riled up by such a notorious troublemaker.
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The straight red card Gervinho received for his apparent headbutt of Barton (he actually missed that target and ended up grazing his shoulder) meant he missed the next three games of the season, which would see Arsenal drop games to Liverpool and Manchester United by a combined score of 10-2 before righting the ship with a narrow 1-0 victory over Swansea City at the Emirates.
In his first league game back against Blackburn on Sept. 17 (he'd played in Arsenal's Aug. 24 Champions League return leg against Udinese), however, the Gervinho fans had been waiting for arrived in breathtaking fashion.
Running onto an excellent through ball in the 10th minute, Gervinho sent a low drive through defender Christopher Samba's legs and into the back of the net to open his Premier League scoring account for the season.
The match would see Arsenal lose 4-3 to the bumbling Rovers, who would end the season relegated, but it would mark a shift in their season's fortunes.
Arsenal would win six of their next seven Premier League fixtures, embarking upon a superb run of form that would last until the new year.
Gervinho was a major reason behind the resurgence, particularly in the month of October, when he was sensational.
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Gervinho provided four assists and one goal during that three-game stretch (he also provided the assist for Aaron Ramsey's winner against Marseille on Oct. 19 at the Stade Velodrome), coming alive in the Stoke game in particular, notching that goal and picking up two assists.
He was flowing now, and Arsenal were in the ascendancy as far as their season was concerned.
Participation at the African Cup of Nations Leads to a Loss of Form
Gervinho had added two more goals before the new year, but left in early January to join up with Ivory Coast for the African Cup of Nations.
By all accounts, it was a good tournament for him, at least until the final.
Forced into a penalty-kick shootout with Zambia, Gervinho skied his attempt over the bar in an eventual 8-7 defeat for his side.
His confidence torn to shreds because of his inability to provide for his team at a key juncture, Arsene Wenger noted the importance of getting him back and into games as soon as possible.
"(Gervinho) was very down when I spoke with him," Wenger told Arsenal's official website in mid-February, just days after the crucial miss.
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"Sometimes the best thing to get things out of your system is to play a game and have a performance," Wenger continued. "When you are young it is important to focus on the next game and show you are a good player."
Wenger certainly had first-hand insight into the debilitating effects heartbreak in an international tournament can wreck upon a player. Arshavin had returned from Russia's defeat in a two-leg playoff for the 2010 World Cup playoff mentally distraught. He has not been the same player since.
For the first two months after Gervinho's own failure, the Ivorian struggled to get games at Arsenal. When he did, he was nowhere near the same player who'd taken the Premier League by storm in October.
Speaking to the official website a month after the mire, Gervinho noted that while the penalty miss was one of the "toughest moments" in his career, but noted that he has encountered setbacks throughout his life as a footballer and has always managed to come back stronger.
Still, the psychological toll took some time to wear off, with Gervinho acknowledging that he spoke to Wenger upon returning from the ACN about needing some time to rest if he was to rediscover his sterling form from earlier in the season.
Wenger granted him his wish and used Gervinho sparingly until April. Coupled with the ascendant play of teenager Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Gervinho found his path to a starting place suddenly blocked.
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It was a difficult period for the Ivorian, whose alleged "weaknesses"—namely, his lack of aerial prowess, defensive inefficiency and profligacy in front of goal—seemed to rear their ugly head with a vengeance, while Oxlade-Chamberlain enjoyed his spell as the toast of English football.
Arsenal fans were clamoring for better form from Gervinho, and while he noted that the physical nature of the Premier League, a vast departure from Ligue 1, had taken its toll, he promised that he would come good.
To his credit, he ended the season on a stronger note than had previously been recorded. In the penultimate match of the season, a disappointing 3-3 draw to Norwich City, Gervinho was back to his mazy best.
Lessons were learned, he told the club's official site, and he looked forward to chasing silverware in 2012-13.
An Impressive Preseason Augurs Well
A fan of Arsenal since he was a boy, Gervinho is relishing his opportunity to fulfill his dream, at his ideal club to boot.
Much is expected from him this season—foreign players are widely believed to require at least one season's worth of experience in the Premier League before truly finding their feet—and based on his preseason form, Gervinho is ready to reward Wenger for his faith.
Although preseason fixtures are a finicky business—it's difficult to get a rhythm going with substitutions ringing in throughout the match—Gervinho displayed some superb bits of form throughout July.
In the Markus Liebherr Memorial Cup, he scored a sensational individual goal against Southampton (even after firing a shot, to boot, and putting that 1.4 shots per game mush to bed).
One of the 23 players selected for the Asia tour, Gervinho started against Malaysian XI and Manchester City before earning Man of the Match honors, voted upon fans in an Arsenal.com poll for his performance in the Gunners' final game of the trip against Kitchee FC.
After filling the role of center forward against City in Beijing, Gervinho was back on the flanks against Kitchee, and he did not disappoint.
That should bode well for the upcoming season. The Ivorian will be relishing his opportunity to improve upon the 2011-12 campaign.
His quality goes without question—Stewart Robson, a frequent commentator for ITV's telecasts of Premier League games who is notoriously stingy with his compliments, frequently relayed to viewers during Arsenal matches last season that he came away very impressed with Gervinho's performance in the 2010 World Cup.
Based on his performances this past July, there's a good chance Gervinho is angling to reward Robson's show of faith.
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