In the 2007-08 season Arsenal made their best surge towards winning the league in recent times, as they led the table for large parts of the season. However, thanks to a late-season collapse triggered by the horrific injury to Eduardo, Arsenal ended up finishing third, four points behind champions Manchester United.
Two extremely influential players of that team left for what they felt were greener pastures. Needless to say, those two players were Alexander Hleb and Mathieu Flamini. Ever since their departure from Arsenal, their careers have gone downhill with both players struggling to make any impact at their respective clubs, more so Hleb.
Hleb left the Gunners to move to Barcelona, while Flamini left for AC Milan. Hleb currently plays for Birmingham, on loan from Barcelona, while Flamini has remained with the Italian giants, drifting in and out of the team. It would be sufficient to say that both players made a costly mistake by leaving Arsenal, the club at which they were on path to become great players.
Hleb might have been a part of the Barcelona squad that won the unprecedented sextuple, but he hardly made an impact of any sorts, as he struggled to get regular playing time as Barcelona shipped him off to his old club, Stuttgart. Even a move to the German club was unsuccessful in revitalizing his career.
This season he moved back the English Premier League via Birmingham City in another attempt to resurrect his fading career. He might have won the Carling Cup with them at the expense of Arsenal, but he didn’t even feature in the final with an injury.
Since leaving Arsenal he has won four trophies with other clubs, but is it the kind of success that he would have desired? The answer is a resounding no.
Every footballer loves winning trophies, there is no doubt about that, but they love playing the game more. They love starting for their club, scoring goals and leading their sides to glory. Has Hleb managed to do any of that? Once again the answer is simple: no.
He has struggled to get regular time and was a mere benchwarmer at Barcelona, and despite moving to Birmingham, he has failed to make the kind of impact he had at Arsenal.
This season it has become evident that Hleb regrets moving to Barcelona when the right decision would have been to stay at Arsenal. His greed and stupidity cost him valuable years of his career, the years of his peak. Instead of spending his years playing regular football, he was warming the bench at Barcelona.
Now he is rightfully filled with regret about moving away from Arsenal when he should have stayed with the London club. In interviews he has even admitted this and has stated that he will not be staying with Birmingham, as he has been unable to adapt to their style of play. He has stated that he would prefer to stay in the Premier League and has expressed his desire to move to Arsenal if ever the chance came again.
In all of Arsene Wenger’s 15 years at the club, only once has he ever re-signed a player he once sold. That player was Sol Campbell, who was signed by Wenger last season in the winter transfer window. The Englishman made a six-month return to Arsenal and left to play for Newcastle United. He had a fairly successful stint with the club. Hleb will be hoping that Wenger once again breaks his policy of not re-signing previous players.
There is no doubt there is a deep desire from the part of the player to play for the club, but the real question is do Arsenal really need Alexander Hleb?
When Hleb did leave Arsenal, he left on a sour note with the fans, and there might still be a bit of resentment against him. But he has expressed his love for the club, and that might persuade the fans to be a bit warmer to him.
Since the departure of Hleb, Arsenal have signed Samir Nasri and Andrei Arshavin. That coupled with the rise of Theo Walcott, Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey all mean that Arsenal have plenty of talent in their midfield.
During the time when Hleb used to play for Arsenal, Wenger used the 4-4-2 formation predominantly with Hleb either playing in the hole, behind the striker or shifting the wings. During the time when injuries struck Arsenal, he would drop behind the striker, but when the likes of Emmanuel Adebayor and Eduardo returned, he slotted into the wings.
But nowadays Wenger has tweaked the formation and prefers to play the 4-2-3-1 in order to enhance the creative skills of his talisman, Cesc Fabregas, and in order to bring the best out of Robin van Persie.
So with players like Walcott and Nasri in the squad and with youngsters coming into the squad, Hleb may struggle to break into the team.
But then again, if he can reproduce the form he showed in 2007-08, he could easily make it into the Arsenal team.
From the interviews he has conducted, it is obvious that he has a huge desire to play for the club that made him hot property in world football. This passion and desire to play for Arsenal could translate into superlative performances on the pitch. Arsenal players have been often accused of lacking passion, and if Hleb does sign for Arsenal, then he will be on a mission to prove his critics wrong and salvage his fading career.
In recent years he has struggled, but he still might have a bit left in the tank. At 30, he could offer Arsenal another good season or two. Moreover, he is an experienced campaigner, and through the course of the season it has become evident that if there is one thing that Arsenal are seriously deficient in, it is experience. He could prove to be the perfect mentor for young, up-and-coming players like Henri Lansbury and Ryo Miyaichi.
Hleb’s experience could come in handy next season as Arsenal look to end their trophy drought. Also, the futures of players like Nasri and Arshavin remain unsure, but Nasri should likely stay. While Hleb is hardly the perfect replacement if either one were to leave, he does offer experience and a bit of depth to the squad.
It will be interesting to see if Wenger makes a bid for the Belarus international, especially since he has been vocal in his desire to return to the Emirates.
There are plenty of pros and cons in signing him and bringing him to Emirates, but considering the fact that his transfer fee would be fairly modest and with Wenger having cash for changes in the summer, Hleb could offer the experience that would be vital in Arsenal’s title push.