Even as a versatile attacker capable of playing in various positions, Gervinho wouldn’t have expected to play so many roles at Arsenal this season.
He was accustomed to a wide role in his debut campaign at Arsenal in 2011/12, but the Ivorian found himself used up front at the start of this season, providing pace and directness behind the defence while Olivier Giroud was eased into English football.
Goals against Southampton, Montpellier, Chelsea and Olympiakos showed his goalscoring capabilities - and it was particularly notable that so many of the strikes were ‘classic’ centre-forward goals; poacher’s efforts from crosses and cut-backs.
"Against Reading on Saturday afternoon, there was more variety and unpredictability in his game - in addition to taking on opponents in wide areas, he also popped up in central positions to become a second centre forward"
Gervinho hadn’t played up front before this season. “I had only played a few times in that position,” he said back in October. “At Lille, I always played on the wings but we used to move a lot with Moussa Sow and Eden Hazard, so I found myself in the centre sometimes… but that’s it. It’s a new position for me, and I’m starting to adapt to it.”
However, as Giroud has adjusted to Premier League football, and with Theo Walcott given more opportunities in his preferred central role, Gervinho has reverted to a wider position. He hasn’t started as a central striker in 2013, but has been fielded on both flanks.
Interestingly, Gervinho indicates his period spent playing up front has improved his all-round game, particularly his movement. “In the middle, it gives you a lot of options. You can make a run on the right, on the left, or deep in the centre,” he says.
That has improved Gervinho’s contribution when deployed on the flank. Previously, his movement was obvious - he’d stay wide and beat an opponent before charging towards the touchline and attempting a cut-back for an opponent.
Against Reading on Saturday afternoon, there was more variety and unpredictability in his game - in addition to taking on opponents in wide areas, he also popped up in central positions to become a second centre forward.
That was summed up by the positions of Gervinho’s shots (see graphic below, left). The attempts themselves were sometimes wayward, but it’s interesting how they all occurred in a central position, despite his starting role on the right.
Having been deployed as a centre forward, Gervinho now gets himself into goalscoring positions more naturally. His opener against Reading was a tap-in, but showed a striker’s instinct to anticipate where Santi Cazorla’s attempt would go, and to break past the Reading offside line.
Key: red - shots off target, unsuccessful passes, green - shots on target, successful passes, yellow - shots blocked, blue - assists
“He finishes well now,” said Arsene Wenger on Saturday. “Much better than when he arrived and he will get better and better. But his finishing is linked with his psychology. To be honest he is not clinical, however when he is completely relaxed he is quite good. He rushes his finishing because when he arrives in front of the goal he wants to get rid of [the ball].”
That eagerness to ‘get rid of the ball’ wasn’t apparent when Gervinho teed up Giroud for Arsenal’s fourth goal against Reading. That showed the maturity in his game - rather than desperately trying to beat the Reading defence on the break, he was happy to slow the play and wait for support, before passing the ball perfectly onto Giroud’s left foot.
"Rather than desperately trying to beat the Reading defence on the break, he was happy to slow the play and wait for support, before passing the ball perfectly onto Giroud’s left foot"
It was his second assist of the afternoon, having passed to Cazorla for the midfielder’s beautifully accurate curled shot early in the second half, and overall Gervinho’s distribution was both positive and reliable (see graphic above, right).
Strangely, the thing Gervinho has become famed for - his ability to go past a defender - wasn’t particularly obvious against Reading. From four attempted ‘take-ons’, he was dispossessed three times. But he compensated for that by becoming an aerial threat in the penalty box, winning both his challenges with opposition centre backs.
A key feature of Arsenal’s play in 2012/13 is their tendency to share goals across various attackers. Whereas last year Wenger’s side boasted the Premier League’s top goalscorer, now none of the top 10 Premier League goalscorers play for the club.
However, Arsenal are the only side to have three separate players - Cazorla, Walcott and Giroud - in double figures, with Lukas Podolski not far behind.
It’s crucial that as many players as possible chip in, and Gervinho’s experience of playing as a centre forward might result in some crucial goals in the run-in, even if he’s starting on the flank.
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