Samir Nasri had taken to Premier League life straightaway but within three months of his Arsenal debut something was bothering him. The season had, on a collective level, lapsed into a now familiar pattern of inconsistency but Nasri thought he and his team-mates were being treated poorly. They had just beaten Chelsea at Stamford Bridge but before the next match, a home game with Wigan Athletic that became infamous for the treatment meted out to Emmanuel Eboué from the stands, he railed against the “acharnement” – widely translated as relentless criticism and perhaps better shortened to invective – he felt Arsenal had received from the press.
Almost nine years have passed and Nasri may reflect that those were the days when, at 21 and hyped as the “new Zidane”, there was far less to worry about. He is in limbo now, remaining within a Manchester City set-up that has little choice but to integrate him while concrete interest from elsewhere fails to materialize. The obvious question is: how has it come to this for a player who still seems too young for such a sharp decline in status?
The most immediate concern for Nasri is the doping case, being overseen by Uefa, that hangs over him following an intravenous drip therapy treatment he is said to have received at a Los Angeles clinic late last year. City are yet to be given a date for its resolution and the effect is obvious: nobody, whether Roma or one of the other Italian and Chinese clubs to have been linked with his services, will exercise anything but caution while the possibility of a lengthy ban remains.
It may turn out Nasri was simply unlucky but the wider picture is that he tends to bring problems on himself. Few more infuriating characters have competed in the Premier League over recent years; the one thing no one questions about Nasri is his talent and it is only three years since, having frustrated Roberto Mancini with inconsistency to the extent the former City manager said he would like to “give him a punch”, he rallied under Manuel Pellegrini to star in a second title-winning campaign. Perhaps he will come good again but the suggestions are of burned bridges, with team-mates reported to have bridled against his perceived arrogance in pre-season.
That flash of annoyance with the media in December 2008, a month after he had scored twice in a defeat of Manchester United, betrayed more than seemed obvious at the time. Nasri is a sensitive, touchy character who reads his reviews and has a habit of reacting to them. It is a trait whose most high-profile effect came in the foul-mouthed row with a French journalist during Euro 2012 that led to his being phased out of the international set-up; it has rubbed others, too, up the wrong way and the impression is of an individual whose reflex for self-preservation has had the opposite effect to the one he intended.
Vikash Dhorasoo, a former France international who knows the alienation a free footballing spirit can feel, expressed it well – and sympathetically – when saying in a newspaper column five years ago: “I just hope when he retires Nasri will discover the joys of the collective.”
It was a telling remark because Nasri, famously accused of disrespecting Thierry Henry by sitting in his seat on the France team bus, has rarely been one to go with the crowd. In football that does not get one very far and perhaps Nasri has suffered on the pitch by not being the player a manager is willing to build an attack round.
At Arsenal he jostled for prominence with Cesc Fàbregas and Robin van Persie, outdoing both in an excellent 2010-11 season; at City he has tended to play his best football when David Silva, a less explosive player but one more conducive to a team’s continuity, has been sidelined.
Nasri has never quite had the place he feels his abilities deserve; that has not always translated into a positive influence elsewhere and his head has shown a tendency to drop. The red card he received after his loan club last season, Sevilla, fell behind to Leicester in their Champions League last-16 match is recent evidence and it tainted an otherwise respectable spell in Spain.
It all adds up to the image of a self-centered, unreliable individual and that is unfortunate because, where ideas about football are concerned, Nasri has always been more switched-on than many. On arriving at Arsenal he described himself as a “non-axial playmaker”; coming from an onlooker’s mouth that would run the risk of being unfathomable jargon but in this instance it suggested a refreshing degree of thought about his role.
During his early seasons in England Nasri would talk with particular knowledge and clarity about other players and teams; no one could say he does not know the game, and perhaps a kind reading of his plight would be that it is a consequence of consistently overthinking while others simply get on with the job.
He will need somebody to be similarly sympathetic if he is to achieve what looked possible a decade ago. He will also need enough people to care. In France Nasri’s name is a near-irrelevance as players such as Kylian Mbappé and Ousmane Dembélé brim with the promise he once held. In England players of inferior ability are shuttled between top-flight clubs for fees several times what it would cost to prise him from City.
Nasri has time to avoid being yesterday’s man. If he makes any more mistakes, then relentless criticism will, when looking back at a career of such possibility, be an enduring norm.
The Guardian Sport