Pitchside Europe

From clown to killer: How Gervinho got his groove back

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After every Roma win at the Stadio Olimpico, Antonello Venditti’s rousing anthem 'Grazie Roma' booms out of the PA system. Ever since its release in 1983 to celebrate the club’s Scudetto of that year it’s been the song fans in the Curva Sud want to sing at full-time.

How curious then that it should become popular among Arsenal supporters this summer. Nearly all were heard saying: “Thanks Roma” after they signed Gervinho for £6.7 million.

So many were grateful, almost incredulous even, that someone actually wanted the player and were prepared to pay money for him, good money.

Over the last two seasons, he had become a figure of fun in North London. For a while it was a laugh. Then came the realisation that, oh no, the joke was on Arsenal. Where there had once been Thierry Henry, there was this guy, Gervinho.

With every miscontrol, every fluffed chance, each one indicative perhaps, some argued, of manager Arsene Wenger also losing his touch, he came to represent how far Arsenal now were from the time in the late '90s through to the mid 2000s when they were among the most technically gifted sides ever to play the game in England and beyond.

Exasperation grew and with it resentment. Often booed at home, Wenger discerned “a lack of confidence especially at the Emirates” in Gervinho’s performances.

“I felt that in the last six months it was very difficult for him to express his talent in a confident way,” he explained. Wenger had a decision to make. “Do I bring him back or does he need a new challenge to get that confidence back?”

Gervinho made his mind up for him. “I wanted to leave,” he told L’Equipe. “I need more playing time, especially as there’s a World Cup next year.” He didn’t appreciate Wenger’s claim that playing at the Emirates had become a trauma for him.

“That’s his opinion,” Gervinho said. “I’m not going to judge it. He offered it once I left. I would have preferred it if he had told me in confidence. That wasn’t the case. I have a lot of respect for Wenger. But a player needs playing time. And a coach has to put his faith in a player if he feels that he needs it.”

Gervinho needed it alright. “With Rudi Garcia, I have it,” he said. Garcia was Gervinho’s coach at Le Mans and then at Lille. He has taken the forward with him whenever the opportunity has presented itself.

So perhaps it shouldn't have come as too much of a surprise, even in the light of his dark days at Arsenal, that on Garcia’s appointment at Roma this summer, one of the players he asked director of sport Walter Sabatini for was Gervinho.

A decisive member of his hipster-lite Lille side of Adil Rami, Mathieu Debuchy, Yohan Cabaye and Eden Hazard, together they did the league and cup double two years ago, a feat the club hadn’t achieved since 1946.Gervinho found the net 15 times in Ligue 1 that season. He also got into double figures in assists.

You could completely understand why Wenger wanted him. Henry himself said Gervinho was “made for the Premier League.” As did his international team-mate Didier Drogba.

Shortly after joining Arsenal, Gervinho was asked if it was tough to leave Lille. “Above all it was tough to leave Rudi Garcia,” he replied. “He still needs me and I still need him.” Reunited with his mentor, it’s like they never left each other’s side.

“We said that one day we’d love to work together again,” Gervinho said. “There’s a mutual respect. He knows how to use me. He knows how to deal with me when I’m playing well and when I’m not. He’s someone who I know and who knows me. My adaptation will be easier.”

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Garcia and Gervinho’s relationship is a reminder of the bond some coaches have with certain players. Unlike Wenger, he is aware of what buttons to push, how to make him tick. Already Roma are seeing the Gervinho of Lille, not that of Arsenal.

After opening his account in a 2-0 win against Sampdoria in midweek, sealing a fifth straight victory for his new side as they made this their best start to a season ever, he was almost every paper’s man of the match following his performance in Sunday’s 5-0 thrashing of Bologna at the Olimpico.

The visitors couldn’t handle him. “To stop Gervinho, they had to tear his shirt,” wrote Massimo De Luca in Il Corriere della Sera; the abiding image of the night being his giallorosso jersey left in tatters by a defender who’d grabbed at him in sheer desperation.

Some slid in. Others fell over as they were sent off balance. Frustrated, they resorted to cynicism. Diego Perez and Archimede Morleo were booked for bad fouls on him. How else were they supposed to contain Gervinho?

On the scoresheet twice, he finished a couple of fine counter-attacks with aplomb. Finding himself one-on-one with the last man, he beat him on the outside before hitting a shot into the bottom corner at the near post and then on the inside with a wonderful effort that curled into the top corner at the far post.

“The rain stopped to watch his second goal,” observed Rinaldo Boccardelli in Il Corriere dello Sport. Nicknamed Er Tendine, the Curtain, by Roma’s fans on account of his hair, it was curtains for Bologna after that strike.

“Get off YouTube,” argued Andrea Pugliese in La Gazzetta dello Sport. “The real Gervinho is this one here, regenerated in body and mind by Garcia. In the face of the many Arsenal fans who have battered him for two years with insults and various mickey-taking, even posting more than one video of thanks when he left and a highlight reel of his [presumed] mistakes at the Emirates, Sunday night’s performance at the Olimpico was instead that of a wonderful player, capable of breaking a defence with his speed whose only weakness once he gets going is he goes faster than the ball.”

It was of great satisfaction to ‘Gervi’, as his team-mates affectionately call him, not least because Roma’s sixth consecutive victory sent them two points clear at the top of the table. “He’s a lad who needs confidence,” Garcia said afterwards, “and we’ve got to understand that the scoring opportunities he creates don’t exist without him there.

"He can get some wrong but I prefer to have him there because I know he’ll create those opportunities. Gervinho has more experience now. He’s happy with his team-mates and it’s easier for him to play with such talented players by his side.”

Speaking to RAI on Monday, Gervinho said: “With this spirit we are among the strongest teams in Europe.” It’s a shame that Roma didn’t qualify for any of its competitions, though it must be said a less congested fixture list is one of the reasons why many people believe they can mount a serious challenge for the Scudetto this season.

Ahead of this week’s Champions League matches, he wished Italy’s teams well and was quoted as saying he hoped Napoli beat Arsenal tonight. It was a mistranslation. “Arsenal will always be dear to my heart,” he tweeted, “and I wish the best for them.”

Right now though the best for him is to be back with Garcia, under whom Gerv is finally rediscovering his verve.

James Horncastle | Follow on Twitter

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