It is too reductive to condense the complex beast that is a football match down to one solitary factor, but as a hostile Emirates Stadium rapidly emptied with four minutes remaining of Arsenal’s Champions League tie against Schalke, it was tempting to characterise this is a tale of two strikers.
It was also a tale of two approaches, a clash of different eras, between the familiar, comforting past and the new, unsettling future. The classic centre-forward represented by Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and the modern amorphous forward represented by the entirely unconventional Gervinho.
The former is a player whose undiluted hunger for goals and occupation of the penalty area mark him out as a retro delight, an unadulterated striker. His 48 goals last season was an obscene tally, but broadly characteristic for a player who has been accumulating goals at an impressive ratio ever since scoring so many for AGOVV during a solitary year on loan in 2003-04 that they named a stand after him.
Huntelaar’s craft is goalscoring, his attitude single-minded. In an age of false nines, when strikers drift wide or drop deep, Huntelaar remains steadfast in his occupation of the box. It is not for nothing that it has been said that he “was cloned from Marco van Basten” – a man who was the absolute epitome of the classic striker.
When Ibrahim Afellay leapt to contest a header with just under 15 minutes remaining at Emirates Stadium last night, it was Huntelaaar – aided by the inattentiveness of Andre Santos, a man whose defending against Schalke was as dangerous as his driving – who pounced. Having missed a glaring opportunity in the first half he was not about to waste another, and his finish was emphatic.
And then we come to Gervinho, Arsenal’s great enigma. Whereas Huntelaar’s genus is clear and precise, his genetic link to the classic strikers of the past immediately apparent, the Ivorian is a more complicated figure, the personification of a very modern mutation. Though ostensibly the lone striker again against Schalke, as he has been for much of the season, Gervinho spent a large portion of the match drifting out to the right side, vacating his position as so many contemporary ‘strikers’ do.
Sir Alex Ferguson once said of one of the most admired modern finishers, Filippo Inzaghi, that he was “born in the offside position”. Well, while a player like Huntelaar has made the penalty box his permanent residence, Gervinho has joined the collection of central forwards who, with their role becoming free and loose, are now of no fixed abode.
It showed in a disjoined performance. When given the chance to accelerate towards goal following a quite brilliant touch and through ball from Santi Cazorla after 23 minutes, Gervinho typically got his legs in a tangle to provoke howls of frustration as Benedikt Hoewedes recovered to prevent him from scoring. When pulling wide to create space on one occasion on 59 minutes he supplied a dangerous cross from the left, but only the hesitant Aaron Ramsey had come into a central area to replace him.
Gervinho had only one shot and after he allowed another break to peter out it was a relief to see Steve Bould comply with the wishes of a group of vociferous Arsenal fans and remove him with 17 minutes left. This was a confused, discombobulated performance from a player who simply isn’t cut out to lead the line. Though his intelligent runs can create space and his delivery is often good, he lacks any kind of composure or finishing ability.
Admittedly his initial impact in the role was impressive though. Having been trialled in the position in pre-season during a friendly against Manchester City in Beijing, Gervinho first adopted the central role proper in a 6-1 win over Southampton on September 15, scoring twice. He extended that tally to five in five with goals against Montpellier, Chelsea and Olympiacos, but the game in which he didn’t score - a 1-1 draw with Manchester City - demonstrated his shortcomings to the full as excellent chances passed him by.
Gervinho’s performance against Schalke made you question why Arsene Wenger is persisting with his experiment. Usually one to set fashions, the man who once transformed English football now seems to be following the recent trend of gratuitously using non-strikers in the traditional number nine role. But where Luciano Spalletti had Francesco Totti as he pioneered the 4-6-0 formation at Roma, and Pep Guardiola had Lionel Messi when he refined and defined the notion of the false nine at Barcelona, Arsenal have Gervinho.
Wenger prefers to draw comparisons with a couple of famous tactical tweaks of his own. Explaining his decision to utilise Gervinho in his new position at the start of October, he said: “I did that with Robin van Persie. He was more a technical player; it was not obvious to put him as the central striker. I did it with Thierry Henry, I did it now with Gervinho and I think I will do it as well with Walcott. They have other qualities that are well suited to our game. Our game is based on movement and technical ability and they have that.
“The thinking was to use well his quality of movement and his pace. But of course you have to overcome a little bit of an obstacle that he doesn’t correspond well to the traditional image you have of a central striker.”
That’s putting it mildly, and the key difference is surely that Van Persie and Henry were always fine finishers. Gervinho is patently not. Wenger also neglected to mention that he used Andrei Arshavin as a false nine in the 2009-10 season when Van Persie was sidelined due to injury and it was a role the Russian found himself wildly unsuited to. Despite his early flurry of goals, it appears Gervinho has materialised more on the Arshavin than the Van Persie end of the spectrum.
There is no doubt that a good player lurks somewhere inside that wiry frame. Get him to the byline, cutting in from the flanks, and he can be a menace. After all, no less a talent than Eden Hazard once described his former Lille team-mate as “the best player I played with … great players inspire you.”
But at centre-forward, Gervinho is not a great player. He will not adapt to the position as Totti, Messi or Van Persie did. Though an admirably willing character – even after the Schalke game he tried his best to engage in interviews with the media, only for his faltering English to prove an insurmountable barrier – he is simply not a striker. When Arsenal have Olivier Giroud sat on the bench, it seems perverse to persist with this particular project.
The value of having a genuine centre-forward was all too apparent on Wednesday night. The match was won by Huntelaar, of whom team-mate Lewis Holtby once said “you could behead [him] and he'd still score goals”. Instead the headless chicken act was left to Gervinho, a man fatally unsuited to a role that modern football has thrust upon him.