Alexander Hleb: Arsenal’s most beautiful loser

Arsenal v Liverpool  - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final

Valentin Boulan returns to TFN with some reflections on former Arsenal midfielder Alexander Hleb…

The date is September 11th, 2012. France entertains Belarus in one of those routine qualifying matches – you know, the type of games in which out of form strikers love to get their confidence back? In the fixture’s turning point, Belarus playmaker Alexander Hleb finds himself through on goal, a golden opportunity as his team still had all to play for.

As the attacker runs through, TF1 commentator Arsene Wenger, as usual the quietest and brightest man on the panel, whispers, “He won’t shoot”. And, of course, he didn’t. The chance was gone, and the opposition went on to win.

Aliaksandr Hleb doesn’t score, because he doesn’t shoot. Instead, he symbolises this lost Arsenal generation which played beautifully, and lost even more beautifully. Young, talented, technical and creative, he was part of a glamorous midfield alongside Rosicky, Fabregas and Flamini (version 1.0).

Gifted with fabulous ball control and vision, Hleb was the perfect fit for Wenger’s possession obsessed side. A master of short passing and one touch football, he could also easily get past his direct opponent, making a difference and creating gaps on his own. A versatile attacker, he was comfortable playing on either wing or in a more central position.

On paper though, Hleb’s time at Arsenal was fruitless, as he failed to find consistency. In three years in North London, he only managed to score seven goals, despite regularly playing in a free role behind a lone striker. Most importantly, he failed to win any trophy during his time in the capital.

In 2006, he took part in Arsenal’s exciting European campaign, which included a spectacular away win at the Bernabeu to beat Real Madrid, and victory over Vieira’s (pre-Moggi scandal) Juventus. He also became the first Belarusian to take part in a Champions League final, as the Gunners were defeated by Ronaldinho’s Barcelona.

During Arsenal’s collapse in the latter part of the 2007-08 season following Eduardo’s ankle injury, Hleb was one of several key players whose form appeared to severely dip. Those few months further highlighted the player’s struggle to stay on top of his game, and combine the aesthetically pleasing with effectiveness in the final third, in a way Bergkamp had done so successfully.

That season, Arsenal came close to reaching the Champions League semi finals again, before getting knocked out by a dodgy Liverpool penalty, only moments after reaching footballing flawlessness, through a Maradonesque Walcott assist to Adebayor. Like a symbol, this was to be Hleb’s last European game with the Gunners.

The following summer, Hleb signed for Barcelona. Although he went on the win the treble with them, he never made it as a first team regular. In four years in Catalonia, he was loaned out twice, first to Stuttgart and then to Birmingham City (turning down a move to Mourinho’s legendary Inter in 2009 in the process, obviously). During his time in the West Midlands, he would miss Birmingham’s League Cup victory over Arsenal through injury, but came back on time to see the club get relegated.

Now 32 and playing for Turkish side Konyaspor, Hleb’s best years are behind him. When he soon retires, Arsenal’s most beautiful loser will undoubtedly look back and think about the many trophies which could and should have been his. But as for the likes of Denilson, Robinho and Quaresma, his legacy lies elsewhere: in the hearts which seek out the thrill of a random spark of elegance, of an inspired back-heel, of a refined dribble.

And on Youtube ‘best of’ video clips.


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