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|Samir Nasri's every touch was booed at the Emirates on Sunday, and he was substituted for a left back, Aleksandar Kolarov, to boot.|
Manchester City's title hopes effectively ended at the Emirates on Sunday. For Samir Nasri, returning to his old club, it was a particularly painful way to lose the title.
Nasri has appeared at the stadium three times in 2011-12. The first occasion was on the first day of the season, still in an Arsenal shirt. Arsene Wenger had an injury crisis, and even though Nasri was about to depart, Wenger had to play him. He was booed by his own fans.
Next was Manchester City's 1-0 Carling Cup win at the Emirates in November, in which Nasri had a running spat with young Arsenal midfielder Emmanuel Frimpong and at one point tried to substitute himself by walking off the pitch when he saw Sergio Aguero ready to come on, after just 32 minutes. Sadly for Nasri, it was the injured Aleksandar Kolarov who was making way. Nasri and Frimpong had to be separated in the tunnel after the game.
Then there was Sunday's game, the 1-0 defeat to Arsenal. Nasri was a peripheral figure in the match, whether in his starting role at the top of a midfield triangle or out on the right wing. His every touch was booed, and there was much amusement from the home fans when he was substituted by Kolarov -- a left back -- who was presumably considered more of an attacking threat by manager Roberto Mancini.
It's a sad turnaround for a player who was extremely popular with Arsenal fans last season. With Cesc Fabregas' move to Barcelona widely acknowledged as imminently close, Nasri was seen as Fabregas' replacement in that attacking midfield role.
"Imagine the worst situation -- we lose Fabregas and Nasri -- you cannot convince people you are ambitious after that," Wenger said early in the summer. Nasri was representing Arsenal's ambition. It is astonishing the Gunners could actually improve on last season's fourth-place finish after losing both players.
But what of Nasri? The reality is that he's endured a disappointing campaign for City. His best performance was probably on his debut away in the 6-1 win at Tottenham Hotspur in which he stayed wide on the left and crossed twice for Edin Dzeko to finish. The move to City seemed to suit him -- he was playing in front of his ex-Arsenal and international colleague Gael Clichy, and he fit well with the type of football Mancini wanted to play.
But he hasn't hit those heights since, particularly in the big games. Perhaps part of the problem is Nasri's positioning. When at Arsenal, his best run of form came when he played on the right of Arsenal's 4-2-3-1. Despite saying he prefers the center, Nasri enjoyed that role. "I'm playing high up on the wing now," he said midway through last season. "The boss asks me to go in behind defenders." From there, he enjoyed his best spell in English football, notably mainly for his goals rather than his creativity. He scored 10 times in 2011-12 but assisted only one.
|Nasri was thought to be Cesc Fabregas' replacement at Arsenal, before the Frenchman decided to decamp for Man City.|
"Like every player that is good on the ball, he was too much attracted by the ball," Wenger reflected when describing Nasri's ascent into a goal scorer. "We wanted him to do more runs off the ball, going in behind [the defense] without the ball."
But when Theo Walcott returned to the side and Nasri was switched to the left, he was much less happy. In basic terms, he was simply playing on the opposite side of the pitch in the same role, but he viewed the position as completely different. "It's the difference between playing as a winger and playing as a midfielder," he said. Wenger, meanwhile, tried to invent a new term for Nasri role, describing him as "a half-winger, a wing midfielder."
Despite early signs he'd hug the touchline more at City, Nasri's role has mainly been about coming inside into the center. His pass completion rate is 91.6 percent, second in the Premier League behind Swansea's Leon Britton, demonstrating that his game is now about passing and ball retention. Considering only 18 months ago Wenger was talking about how to get Nasri seeing less of the ball, it's been a dramatic turnaround.
At international level, meanwhile, Nasri has been tried as a deeper midfielder -- and was heavily criticized in that role after France's nervous performance in Albania last year. France coach Laurent Blanc seems to view Nasri differently than both Wenger and Mancini. "He is an intelligent player, he has extraordinary qualities, notably in a one-against-one situation," Blanc said of Nasri. So Wenger thinks Nasri is a finisher, Mancini plays him as a passer and Blanc believes he's a dribbler. Is he an all-rounder, or struggling to find his best position? Gilles Grimandi, the former Arsenal utility player who is now the club's chief scout in France and was heavily involved in Nasri's initial transfer to England, offers no solution. "I don't know, he can play everywhere he can play on the right, on the left, behind the striker and sometimes even a bit deeper," he said.
But where does Nasri excel?
There are also question marks about Nasri's attitude. The jeering of Arsenal fans clearly affected him Sunday, then after the game he took to Twitter to respond to childish remarks made by a television presenter, who's often a parody of himself, and Arsenal fan, Piers Morgan. When on the brink of leaving the Gunners, Nasri swore at, and abused, a fan who questioned his loyalty.
But Nasri is, by most accounts, an intelligent footballer. Many footballers prefer to switch off from the game when not playing, but Nasri is a keen student of European football. Journalists often find him prickly at first, but those who interview him regularly find that he's actually very bright -- unlike, say, Joey Barton, Nasri is just not intent on telling everyone about it.
When on the verge of leaving Marseille in 2008, he signed a contract extension, solely so Marseille would get a higher transfer fee when selling him. Nasri wanted to thank the club that had developed him from age 10. Small things like that make him seem more self-conscious and less ignorant than many footballers, which might explain why he's so affected by the negative attention he gets when returning to Arsenal.
Nasri has now been in English football for almost four whole seasons yet has only played consistently well in one five-month spell at Arsenal. For a player signed for 12 million pounds by Arsenal, then 24 million pounds for Manchester City, that's simply not good enough. Next season requires a significant improvement.
Michael Cox is a freelance writer for ESPN.com. He runs zonalmarking.net.