It is not right that while Walcott was very, very impressive in his role in last night’s victory, most pundits and fans alike missed out our very own Belarusian genius’ role in one of the most complete footballing performances of recent times. This was clear when the ITV commentator screamed ‘Arsenal and England!’ that most other players were to be left the scraps of praise after a young Englishman appeared to have gotten his break at the most aesthetically pleasing football club in the country.
Yet as this happened, there aren’t enough adjectives to describe how well Hleb has been playing recently and his role in the destruction of Slavia Prague. Done Howe, the former Arsenal manager, claimed some months ago that Hleb can play a similar role in this side as Messi does for Barcelona (this is not to directly compare the two players in any way). After witnessing his form this season it is hard to understand why he could not fulfil such a role. His close control, vision and awareness, enabled Arsenal to unlock the stubborn rearguard action of Bolton last weekend. His ability to find space in the centre of the pitch assisted his more direct team-mates with an inch perfect pass exploited by Walcott to enable Rosicky to score. In a similar fashion he attracted a couple of Prague defenders to the corner flag occupying them as Fabregas ran into the space created, albeit assisted by a slip of his marker, to fire a curling effort beyond the reaches of Vlcek.
For all his abilities Hleb once epitomised Arsenal’s tendency to overplay. No longer is this the case. After scoring the winning goal against Fulham on the opening day of the season, which followed the equalising goal in the Emirates Cup against Inter Milan, Hleb repeated the trick in Europe against Sparta in a last minute counter attack. And against their neighbours and Czech league leaders Slavia, a quick turn in direction left a defender for dead and his pose as he shaped to shoot deceived the keeper who dived for the far post, with Hleb slotting in at the near post. Overall, of the few goals he has scored for Arsenal, more have come in Europe with perhaps the slower tempo and more tactical play benefiting Arsenal and the Belarusian in particular. And if we’re being generous, he can claim the second, which took a large deflection to lift it over the flailing hands of the Prague keeper.
Having played on the right hand side for the majority of his Arsenal career, linking up with the marauding Eboue (and now Sagna), it is clear that at his most effective Hleb plays best in the half-striker role. During Arsenal’s unbeaten season, Hleb played in the hole for Stuttgart, in a run of games which saw them defeat Manchester United, but as momentum dissipated, he was shunted out to his old role on the left, with Coach Felix Magath in favour of Hakan Yakin, which ironically is where some of his best Arsenal performances have come from. With Wenger experimenting with a more possession based 4-5-1 rather than the 4-5-1, successful in Europe in 2005/6 with runners from midfield supporting Henry, this new style was less direct but more efficient in unlocking defensive teams and in retaining the ball against giants such as Inter. Qualms that remain that in this free roaming role, he may inhibit areas usually covered by Fabregas and now, Flamini.
His style which can embarrass opponents has caused retaliation or such very unorthodox methods of stopping his genius. Read Mark Noble (when has a name never been so uncomplimentary to the nature of his actions) and Paul Mcshane. Wenger has encouraged the Belarusian to continue his playing style despite a number of obstacles blocking his path, including thuggish tackles and overly defensive formations. So praise Hleb, and his much improved performances. On last night’s exhibition his name should be held in the same manner as Cesc and Theo.
If we continue our momentum there’s no reason why there shouldn’t be silverware to fill the empty trophy cabinet at Emirates Stadium, and one of the deciding factors should surely be Hleb’s awkward, yet graceful playing style.