When Arsenal announced the signing of Belarussian midfielder Alexander Hleb in the summer of 2005 from Stuttgart, few on English shores batted an eyelid. The languid playmaker had strutted his stuff in the Bundesliga but he was not a name known to the average Premier League watcher.
Arsene Wenger couldn’t afford Europe’s elite stars due to the financial implications of building the Emirates so he searched for a shrewder investment.
Upon first glances, many thought Le Professeur had made a glaring error. Sure, there appeared to be iotas of talent in the Hleb’s wiry legs and he was selfless on the pitch but physically, he just didn’t look cut out for the brutality of the Premier League. It’s a phrase which is often applied to European imports but that’s what it was like for Hleb in his early days with the Gunners.
Wenger didn’t know the position best suited to his skill set and as such, the regular showings of outstanding dribbling and creative work that had been talked about in Germany were not on display.
However, he eventually settled into his role on the right-wing in Wenger’s 4-4-2 formation. If only one striker was fit and available to the French manager, the versatile Belarussian would be brought into the middle as a number 10, similar to Mesut Ozil’s position in the modern day.
In the 2006/07 season, he would become a key member of Arsenal’s squad, making 48 appearances in all competitions. He may have only scored three goals but his role on the pitch was different to most wide players. He was a dictator of sorts, dribbling at opponents and exposing space for the likes of Robin van Persie, Emmanuel Adebayor and Cesc Fabregas – who all possessed a clinical streak – to exploit.
Hleb’s dribbling was simply outrageous, he would torture defences, drive Arsenal forward and then play an acute pass to a teammate. In a sense, the Belarussian wizard was the sort of player who could truly express the philosophy of ‘Wengerball’. Tight interchanges, delicious first touch and incisive movement, all traits which the Arsenal boss craved and they were all possessed by Hleb.
2007/08 was when he and the likes of fellow creator Tomas Rosicky really shone. Arsenal played some of the best football ever seen in the Premier League and Hleb was at the forefront of it. Again, his goal output was poor, scoring just twice all season in the league, but his impact on matches was picked up by Arsenal fans and connoisseurs of the beautiful game.
But, just as he was becoming the heartbeat of Wenger’s slick, youthful side, Hleb made what he still refers to as the worst decision of his career. He moved to Barcelona where injuries and a lack of form saw a player blessed with copious amounts of natural ability wasted.
Ever since, he has lived a journeyman lifestyle, playing for the likes of Birmingham, Wolfsburg, BATE Borisov and Krylia Sovetov, among others, but the though must still dwell in his mind; what could I have been if I stayed at Arsenal?
He could have been the conductor of Arsenal’s attack, operating as the perfect foil for the goal getters that have adorned Wenger’s sides in recent years but sadly, his creative potential was never truly fulfilled.