Give us this day our daily Hleb

Whoa.. early game today, 10am local time (PST). Right, so, I better get this published.

Uhh, you know by now that Arsenal are playing BATE and that BATE are 11-time champions of the Belarusian League. And… that the stadium is like an hour outside of Minsk. And that former Arsenal star, and Champions League winner with Barcelona, Alexandr Hleb used to play for BATE.

I remember Hleb well. I was at Highbury when he scored his second goal for Arsenal. It was what would become a “typical” Hleb goal: a shot which looked like he was forced to take, rather than one he wanted. On that freezing Spring day, Hleb started the attack, driving at Charlton’s defense, passed to Adebayor and then something happened – maybe Adebayor tried to shoot? But after a brief jumble of legs, the ball fell to Hleb and he shot it as hard as he could into the back of the net. A collector’s item, a goal from Hleb.

I get why Hleb’s name comes up, because he played for BATE last year. But what’s strange is the hagiography everyone is crafting for him. He was a miraculous dribbler, he was fast, and he drove the team forward. He played like Cazorla with the ball at his feet and could open almost any defense with his close control. But in the final third he went from Cazorla to Gervinho – he couldn’t pick out the final ball and he refused to shoot when he was wide open and mere feet from the goal.

Hleb was the first of many players from the “Banter era”. He was one of Arsene Wenger’s “bargains” and the first player I ever heard the term “pre-assist” applied to. What that meant was that he passed the ball to the guy who passed the ball to the guy who scored. And while I understand the importance of passing the ball to the guy who passes the ball, it’s not like Hleb was just two steps ahead of everyone else and playing chess with teams, he was simply the guy who liked to run with the ball and when he got deep enough, he dumped it off. Figuratively saying “I got this far, now you do the rest.”

He was a number 10 who didn’t score or assist. According to transfermarkt, he played 131 games for Arsenal, scored 11 goals and assisted 16.  Those 16 assists include “fantasy assists” which are times when a player falls over in the 18 yard box and wins his team a penalty. In short, he played in the Özil role, free from any defensive duties, yet didn’t even provide for his team: he was the ultimate luxury player at a club who were pinching pennies.

His Arsenal career doesn’t even warrant the space I’ve given him here but he is emblematic of a type of player that Wenger absolutely loves and which fans are ecstatic to see sold. He was the most frustrating player I have ever seen play for Arsenal. He was timid in front of goal, he couldn’t pick out a final pass to save his life, and he was an absolute waste of space defensively. But boy, he could dribble.  He was replaced by a player who had almost all of the same qualities but who at least could score: Samir Nasri. And Hleb’s latest doppleganger was Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Wenger loves these types of players, that’s a fact.

Let’s let Hleb’s Arsenal career rest in peace. And please don’t @ me with how great you thought Hleb was. He wasn’t. I also don’t care to hear his sob story about how he should never have gone to Barcelona. I wrote a “good riddance” article about him in 2009, and I mean it now as much as I meant it then. Did he want to get to 300 games so he could get 30 assists?Anyway, none of these footballers are going to feature for Arsenal today. So, I apologize for wasting your time with my trip down memory lane.

Players I am excited to see play today: Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Jack Wilshere (bonus points to anyone who points out that Jack is kind of a Hleb/Ox).

Wenger said before the game that AMN is perfectly suited to play in the defensive midfield role so naturally Wenger will play him at left back, or maybe right back. Meanwhile, Wilshere will probably get the CM role, though whether that’s as the Aaron Ramsey center mid or the Özil role is unclear.

This Arsenal squad is so thin at the moment and with another match on Sunday coming up, Wenger has to rotate. But the key player he needs to rotate is probably Elneny. Unfortunately, Arsenal don’t have enough CMs to rest Elneny, nor enough right backs to play AMN in the CM role.

Come to think of it, Arsenal don’t have enough left-backs either. Right now, Monreal is the backup left back but he’s playing center back, so unless you’re going to play Koscielny (who won’t be playing much this season as his career comes to an end due to chronic injury) and then use Monreal three times in a week at two different positions, Wenger almost has to use Kolasinac or someone from the youth team.

It’s incredible to think that Wenger has 9 defenders, 9 midfielders, and 7 forwards and somehow we are already short and shifting folks around. That’s mostly down to the fact that Debuchy is still on the team but will never play for Arsenal again, that Chambers is clearly not wanted (also injured), Welbeck is injured, and Cazorla and Coquelin are injured.

As for BATE, their star player is a number 10 who does shoot, score, and assist: Mirko Ivanic. He’s a fairly tall midfielder with a decent touch who likes to pass the ball into the net. He will probably find the speed of this game and the physicality of Arsenal’s players too much for him, but if Arsenal fall asleep he could hurt them.

BATE’s only chance for points in this match is to press Arsenal’s back three. Holding will probably start and he is a liability with the ball. And if Elneny and Wilshere are the Arsenal center mid pairing, BATE could effectively trap the ball in the Arsenal half for long periods. But it’s a risky tactic and I would be surprised if BATE go for it because if they leave space in behind, Wenger’s players will find Theo Walcott, who I expect to start, on one of his trademark runs. And Theo will punish them (eventually).


Further reading:

Alas Poor Hleb, I knew him Horatio!

Alas, poor Hleb! I knew him, Horatio.

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