There are many reasons why players don’t fulfill their potential. Some don’t make it because they couldn’t possibly live up to the hype. Freddy Adu never escaped the pressure of being the ‘Next Pelé’ and his career has paled into insignificance. Sometimes players develop an attitude which makes their presence untenable, regardless of talent – see Hatem Ben Arfa and Mario Balotelli, for instance. In some cases said attitude comes pre-packaged, as we’ve witnessed with the short rise and long fall of England ‘bad boy’ Ravel Morrison, currently in the wilderness at Lazio. But there’s nothing quite as wretched as a promising career stunted by persistent injury problems. This has, regrettably, been the fate that befell Arsenal midfielder Tomáš Rosický, a thoroughly hard-working yet woefully unlucky individual who has donned the number 7 shirt since 2006. With his time at the Emirates coming to an end upon his contract expiration, it seems a fitting time to reflect on his Gunners career.
I vividly remember him signing for Arsenal. As an excitable young fan, I had heard about his transfer while on a school trip. I hurried home to check the Arsenal website and my elation intensified when I found out I’d be able to watch him from the comfort of my own home when he took to the field for the Czech Republic at the 2006 World Cup. I’d heard of Rosický before, but upon seeing him it was clear that Arsene Wenger was on to a winner. His performance against the United States still makes me smile – after hammering a 25-yard effort past Kasey Keller in the first half, the little playmaker picked up the ball just inside the USA half, rounded Oguchi Onyewu and ran on to loft the ball into the net. Two majestic goals immediately made him a firm favourite of mine.
His first season at Arsenal carried on with similar traits. The long ranged effort away at Hamburg in the Champions League echoed his first against the USA while his efforts at Anfield in the FA Cup echoed the style present in his second – one a cultured, curling strike from the edge of the box, one a smart finish after another signature slaloming run. Our little Czech maestro had been given the task of inheriting Robert Pirès’ shirt and he was certainly delivering.
It says a lot that many found Rosický’s talent hard to put into tangible terms. More often than not, he was likened to inanimate objects in order to best describe his style – a “Rolls Royce” player, a “champagne” footballer. But while clichéd, they did the trick. To some extent. Personally, he’ll always be “little Mozart”, the nickname he garnered early in his career. Stylistically he was a more than adequate replacement for Pirès and, whether coming from wide or from the centre, he exuded class and dynamism.
One man who was able to articulate how he felt about Rosický was Arsène Wenger. What started out as a generic soundbite for any incoming midfielder turned into a love letter by the beginning of last year. “We are delighted to welcome Tomáš to our squad. He has great technique, skill on the ball and sharp passing” the Frenchman said in May 2006 upon signing the Czech playmaker. By January 2015, Wenger’s admiration of Rosický was palpable and heartfelt:
“If you love football, you love Rosický”
But it wasn’t to be this rosy for long. In 2008, knee problems kept Rosický out for 14 months, followed by surgery to his Achilles tendon which kept him out for another five months in 2012. More recently, an operation on chronic knee trouble curtailed his involvement in any games between June 2015 and January this year, when a muscle injury flared up and has kept him out since then. Rosický represented a monumental loss for Arsenal during these troubling times, adding style and drive to often uninspired teams. The departures of Alexander Hleb and Cesc Fàbregas left Arsenal bereft of creativity at crucial times down the years, as well as a lack of goals from the midfield third.
However, as frustrating as it was for the Gunners, it was nothing on the pain Rosický has had to endure. A full-hearted footballer who enjoys his football through and through, the Czech Republic captain has been forced out of 159 competitive games during his time in North London – averaging out at around 20 per season.
Because of his sporadic injury breaks, Rosický has had a number of ‘returns’ to the team in his time. During the wholly unpleasant business of the 8-2 defeat at Old Trafford, Rosický was a picture of dejection. He was scolded by pundits and commentators for his efforts in the wall against Wayne Rooney’s pinpoint free-kicks, and he looked for all the world as if he’d given up on the side. His subsequent performances proved quite the opposite — perhaps influenced by fellow aging playmaker Yossi Benayoun’s rousing displays, Rosický added steel and grit to his game. His performance against Manchester United in the reverse fixture was the mirror image of his showing at the Theatre of Dreams, having added substance to his style despite the 2-1 loss.
Furthermore, little Mozart has endeavoured to make the most of his limited availability – since 2012, Rosický has carved a niche for himself as a player who almost always puts in a fine showing in Arsenal’s often laboured final few months of the season. A clipped finish against Tottenham in 2012 was followed by vital contributions against West Brom in 2013 and a superb dinked finish against Sunderland and a powerful hit against Spurs at White Hart Lane in 2014. In addition to this, the last year or so has seen Rosický don the armband and dominate an FA Cup 4th Round tie against Brighton, scoring in the process, and an all-action cameo against Everton in the 2-0 league win.
His most recent comeback, however, will remain the most telling. Appearing as a substitute in the FA Cup against Burnley, his 19 minute stint was scattered with moments of class. This was expected. What was quite different, however, was the ovation he received. Every touch was loudly cheered, every flick or trick appreciated more than ever before. This palpable and poignant support for the midfield maestro came with the acceptance that the end was near. Yet despite his career at Arsenal drawing to a close, he’s always retained his core features. Flair, power and drive permeated his every contribution in recent years, even through his torrid injury troubles. There is fuel in the Rolls Royce yet, a few drops of champagne still to savour.
Rosický is currently in full training, as of the latest report from the Arsenal boss. This is an almighty relief, as anyone who saw the midfielder’s harrowing interview on Arsenal.com will have feared that he may have played his last game in red and white. If he does manage to take to the Emirates turf one last time, he can be safe in the knowledge that he’ll receive a final, emotional and rapturous tribute. Indeed, every Arsenal fan will have their own fond memories of Rosický but heartbreakingly, there will almost certainly be a sense of what could have been, such was the immense promise of the 25-year-old who arrived in 2006. Injuries have undoubtedly been the difference in his Arsenal career; the difference between ‘useful’ and ‘vital’, the difference between ‘admired’ and ‘revered’, the difference between ‘great’ and ‘one of the greats’.
Our little Mozart will always be a firm fan favourite. But he could, and should, have been so much more.