The Ivory Coast star was mismanaged at the Emirates Stadium and became a figure of fun. Under Rudi Garcia he is a man possessed
Gervinho is a player whose career may be destined to be defined by a two-year spell at Arsenal during which he was misused by Arsene Wenger and therefore misrepresented.
While former Lille team-mates Eden Hazard and Yohan Cabaye exploded into the spotlight in England, the Ivory Coast international was left hung out to dry by Arsene Wenger, whose approach failed to maximise the talents of one of the most dashing wingers in European football.
At the Emirates Stadium, the 27-year-old mustered only nine league goals in two seasons, but has had the credibility blown back into his career by Rudi Garcia, who has acted as the father figure of his career, signing him on no fewer than three occasions.
Garcia has been a long-time ally of the African, having first spotted his raw talents at Le Mans, where the coach spent the 2007-08 season. A year later, the trainer invited the player to make the first big step of his career by joining him in Lille for €6 million. The pair briefly parted company when Gervinho left for England, though it was Garcia who swooped to the rescue to revitalise the attacker’s career in Rome.
It has proven an almost perfect partnership, with the Ivorian marking his first season in Italy with nine strikes in 33 Serie A matches as Roma have established themselves as the likeliest challengers to Juventus’ hegemony.
Arsenal fans may, with hindsight, lament his loss – particularly for the paltry fee of €8m – but in truth, unless Wenger changed the style of his whole side, the Ivorian was always going to be running down dead ends in north London.
The Gunners’ approach was simply too slow and too methodical to get the best out of the winger. The wideman thrives under Garcia’s more direct and exciting system, which exploits his phenomenal speed – the player once joked that with a ball at his feet he is quicker than Usain Bolt.
Gervinho is a man who is at his best when he is allowed to be instinctive, has room behind an opposing defence to penetrate and is backed with belief from the dugout. At Le Mans, Lille and Roma, he has been given these tools, but at Arsenal he was asked to play a more concrete role in a more methodical team. He struggled and lost all confidence.
“The difference between Roma and Arsenal? The coach,” the 26-year-old told Sports Illustrated earlier this year.
“Here my coach, Rudi Garcia, gives me confidence, I know that he believes in me. When I wake up in the morning, I like to come to work, I cannot wait.”
Simple opportunities would often pass the attacker by at the Emirates, where he was stripped of every last shred of confidence until he mustered only 1,022 Premier League minutes in his final term there, having been turned into something of a joke figure by the club’s fans.
Now he is at the vanguard of one of the most dangerous and charismatic teams in Italy, having been handed the offensive keys by his tutor, who tied him down to a new contract on September 16 that expires in 2018. When Gervinho is not in the Roma side, they do not look nearly so potent, and it is a rare thing indeed for Serie A opponents to stifle the relentless direct dribbling of the attacker.
The praise he has earned over the last year has flown freely. Roma legend Francesco Totti described him as a “beast” while Garcia has painted the Ivory Coast star as a “player with unique characteristics”.
Crucially, though, he has been allowed the opportunity to express himself by a dynamic 4-3-3 system that fits his needs.
Following the first Champions League match of the season, a stunning 5-1 win over CSKA Moscow, Garcia explained that his tactics had revolved heavily around the African.
“We played like we wanted to play. We knew that it would be possible to build good chances playing through CSKA’s lines and we did that, exploiting the speed of Juan Manuel Iturbe and Gervinho,” he explained.
“Garcia has a very special style,” Gervinho explained in February. “He often tells me that he knows my qualities better than anyone else. There are many players with talent, but it is important to find a coach who knows how to make the most of that.
“Rudi was very good with me in that sense. He knows how to do what is best for the team and, at the same time, to let me be free with my football.”
It is little wonder then, that Gervinho was arguably the most decisive player during his final year in France – even arguably outplaying the blossoming Eden Hazard. While the Chelsea star scored seven goals and made 10 assists, Gervinho accrued the same number of decisive passes but found the net 15 times – all in three fewer league appearances.
Astonishingly, Gervinho, a lynchpin of the LOSC side that won a league and cup double, was overlooked in the Player of the Year nominations and publically wondered in L’Equipe: “What have I to do to be named in the four best players in France?”
His career since has been rather like that, as he has been left underappreciated and, to some extent, pushed unjustly into the shadows.
On Wednesday, he can go some way to restoring his damaged reputation in England by leading Roma to victory away to Manchester City, yet it is unlikely that Premier League fans will ever truly appreciate his instinctive and thrilling nature.
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