The Love Song of G. Alfred Prufrock

Gervinho's road to Rome, and something like redemption
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Photo by Ronnie Macdonald, used under a Creative Commons license.

To get to the bottom of Gervinho’s blighted two-year stint as Arsenal’s lost, lonely lamb, and his current nascent revival at Roma, it’s important to note that there is no vale of tears like that gouged out of the cursed rock by the winger.

It’s almost old-fashioned, the contest between the winger and the full-back. It’s the kind of one-on-one situation that recalls the days when every player had a direct opponent: 2 marks 11, 3 marks 7, 5 marks 9, etc. Today, the winger is as likely to cut inside, towards the bosom of infield; or even to be a proper playmaker, someone who might have played more centrally if not squeezed out by the congestion. He is no longer, supposedly, some kind of mavericky peripheroid. Teams are meant to play like teams these days. It’s all about overloading zones, and passing and moving all philosophical-like, and Rinus Michels’ Big Book of Fluid Dynamics. And yet, sometimes, the winger will get given the ball out wide, and it’s him versus the full-back and the sideline, while the rest of the pack stand back and wait for an outcome to set upon with slashing claws.

Now, the goalkeeper is traditionally football’s existentialist speed bag: burdened by his superpower (the ability to touch the ball with his hands and arms), cut adrift until required to rescue his colleagues from their inability to do their jobs well. When the keeper does his job well, it’s forgotten by the end of the sigh of relief. But when he makes even the skimpiest error, it shows up just beautiful, and it forever follows him like a ribbon of toilet paper gummed to the heel of his shoe, while his so-called-team-so-called-mates get to slink away from the scene of the accident. There’s nobody there to do any moppage on his mistakes, nobody to stop him from looking—as Camus might have put it—like a complete arse. No wonder that in The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty, nothing happens for ninety minutes—apart from when the goalie senselessly kills someone.

But the keeper has the luxury of having his fate decided for him, at least 98% of the way. He just has to stand there and sort of wait—tedious, no doubt, but nothing a mantra or a good counting game couldn’t take care of. The winger in traditional combat stance faces a tougher challenge. From the normal run of things, where each player is trying to create space for his teammates, everyone turns and looks to one man to create something ex nihilo. He’s chained in a box and has to get out all by himself and, oh, if you could just save mankind when you’re done, that’d be lovely, ta. Or as Don Revie (I think it was) put it, the universe gets squeezed into a ball and rolled towards an overwhelming question; it is up to the winger to force the moment to its crisis. When it comes off, it’s a thing of splendour. But when it doesn’t…

At Arsenal, Gervinho was often asked to do this moment-forcing, and he struggled. And he kept getting asked, and he kept struggling. The winger needs a certain sleight-of-hand—a deviousness, even. And he needs the gall to push it through, a politician’s self-generating immunity to qualm and remorse.

That is what was so frustrating about Gervinho. He had the skills: the ball control, the acceleration, the deceleration. The signs were present that here was someone who could actually play a bit of football. Gervinho obviously had, if not it, then… well, something. But he was led down dimly-lit alleys he didn’t have the guile to escape. He had time to make his decision, and no idea how to use it. Where a backup reserve of confidence might usefully have kicked in, Gervinho’s was a mercurial phenomenon. The harder he tried, the worse he got. Things became tragicomic. He’d beat his man, only to find fate lurking around the corner with a surprise gift: he’d get into the box, only to seemingly forget what to do next, and thus get dispossessed; or he’d stumble and fall over the by-line like an emu with a broken leg.

The Emirates crowd wouldn’t exactly have taken Jesus to a fourth set in a forgiveness match. “At Arsenal he has become almost a joke figure,” wrote Jonathan Wilson in January:

There is a fan who sits in front of the press box at the Emirates who has an enormous quiff and habitually wears an orange overcoat who seems these days to attend games for the express purpose of abusing Gervinho. He may be an extreme case but it doesn't take much for fans to become impatient with Gervinho these days. And as their impatience has grown, so has Gervinho's confidence dipped – and he seems very much a confidence player.

“[T]he attitude,” Wilson continued, “seems to be to highlight his deficiencies so that he's got rid of and replaced sooner rather than later.” There was no coming back from that. What made it worse was that in another position, the harshest effects of your failings might get covered up; on the wing, there’s no hiding place. You’re exposed at centre-stage, and if you trip, you’re drowning in puddles of pathos. Gervinho’s stints became almost painful to watch as he turned into a melancholy emblem of parish cruelty, the epitome of purposelessness. It’s a hell of a word, that. Say it aloud: purposelessness. It starts with a bang, full of intent, then trails off as its engine gives up. Gervinho looked like a greyhound track’s mechanical hare on the blink, trundling up and down the home straight, getting nowhere ever more slowly, then stopping.

Thankfully for the spiritual health of our dopey sub-genus, Gervinho seems to have found somewhere he can be himself again. In the summer, he joined Roma, who currently lead Serie A with a perfect record. There, he is treated with care by Rudi Garcia, who previously coached him at Lille. Now, he’s the greyhound springing from the trap. He takes little part in Roma’s build-up play; his role comes further down the line. He hangs around the fringes—so much so that you sometimes wonder whether he’s fallen off the edge of the pitch. But it’s just that, in contrast with the more onerous of his Arsenal duties, he’s waiting for his teammates to make space for him. They drag the opposition hither and fro, maybe getting them on the run a little (or more), and then Gervinho gets to work, confronting defenders head-on, with the freedom to go inside or outside according to instinct. He isn’t funnelled towards parts of town best avoided. His defensive responsibilities are light; again, his habitat is away from the thick of it, keeping himself primed for counter-attacks, from which he’s already scored goals and drawn yellow cards. When he does have to race the full-back to the byline, he keeps his head. And when he doesn’t succeed, it’s no drama—he’s bound to be given a better chance at some point.

It’s early innings yet, of course. Winning every match you’ve played so far in a season has a way of buoying even the most leaden of participants. Perhaps the oven door will soon open and the soufflé will phut to flatness. It would take a Lazio fan, however, to be cynical about Roma right now, and something unspeakably beastly to deny Gervinho his joy.

Sure, he’ll never be The Man on a team. If it’s foundation-cracking heroism you crave, the sight of a player who so dearly needs the game pre-loosened for him is likely to offend and appal. Well, boo-hoo. His glee at having the odds nudged ever so slightly in his favour by his teammates (and coach) is a meal for jaded appetites. It’s as if “Prufrock” had an epilogue where he gets a big hug from Francesco Totti.

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