It speaks wonders for the absolute trust that the directors of Roma had over the summer for their incoming coach, Rudi Garcia, they were able to ignore their gut reaction to one of the most important names on Garcia’s wish-list.
The conversation between Garcia and Roma’s sporting director, Walter Sabatini, might have gone something like this …
Sabatini: “So, Rudi, it looks like we are going to sell a few players, maybe Erik Lamela, Pablo Osvaldo and Marquinhos … Who would you like us to try to buy?”
Sabatini (raising both eyebrows, and trying not to wince): “Gervinho? The guy at Arsenal? A little on the – how to put this – erratic side?”
Sabatini (gulping): “Oh. Right. Um. OK.”
Some weeks later, with Roma top of Serie A, on a stunning winning streak, and with a reborn Gervinho being so breathlessly admired by the locals that a writer in Il Romanista swooned that “Africa has its Messi”, Sabatini reflected on a move that owed everything to the connection between player and mentor.
“I would not have signed Gervinho for any other coach,” he said. “Garcia specifically requested Gervinho, a player he had worked with and won with before at Lille. Because of that request we worked to bring Gervinho in. It was not an easy negotiation process, either.”
Gervinho in a giallorosso jersey looks completely different to the version in red and white who often seemed to get tangled up in his own dribbles and had a tendency to develop a dizzy spell when through on goal.
Roma’s Gervinho looks more powerful, more pacy, more precise than he did during two seasons with Arsenal. Playing on the right of an attacking trident, with Francesco Totti probing centrally and Alessandro Florenzi on the left, his piercingly quick forays have become an instant hit in Serie A. The goals, and assists, are flowing.
He is playing with the enthusiasm of a man who has returned to a happy place. Gervinho has not come home in a physical sense because Italian football is new to him.
But he has come home in a footballing sense. He feels absolutely at ease with Garcia. He feels implicit trust, which has given him the freedom to play without any anxiety.
“I knew exactly what I was looking for when I joined Roma: the chance to play more, a coach who showed faith in me and a club with high ambitions,” Gervinho explained. So far, so good.
His Arsenal years can be filed away in a drawer marked “baffling”. That is the case for Arsène Wenger, too.
For a long time the Arsenal manager was certain that there was a gem hidden away beneath Gervinho’s unpredictability. But the weeks and months only seemed to make the code to unlock him even more complicated to decipher.
After an unwelcome start – he was sent off on his debut at Newcastle United after being wound up by Joey Barton – Gervinho began to make headway until the Africa Cup of Nations interrupted his progress.
A flurry of goals at the start of his second season, when to general amazement he was positioned as a false nine, was encouraging, but his impact tailed off again and the Emirates crowd couldn’t help airing their frustration.
Fluffing his lines in front of an open goal in a Capital One Cup game at Bradford (which Arsenal went on to lose), and lying forlorn on the turf, summed up which way things were going.
Gervinho looked like another one to add to the curious list of players who came to Arsenal and appeared to go backwards (Andrey Arshavin and Marouane Chamakh also turned from respected internationals into the butts of jokes).
Wenger has often trotted out the maxim that confidence is the “hardest thing to gain and the easiest thing to lose” and the more he looked at Gervinho, the deeper he felt that particular problem.
When Roma called, it felt like a reasonable solution for everybody. “He looked to play with a lack of confidence, especially at the Emirates,” Wenger said.
“He is a very creative player, an instinctive dribbler and for that you need a lot of confidence to be completely efficient. I felt that in the last six months it was very difficult for him to express his talent in a confident way. Then you sit there and think: ‘Do I bring him back or does he need a new challenge to get that confidence back?’ and I did not want to stop him from getting a new chance.”
For Wenger, it was a harder decision than some may imagine. As a manager he had witnessed numerous examples of players reaching new levels with a switch of clubs. It was something of a speciality in the first act of his Arsenal tenure, with Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Dennis Bergkamp perfect examples of the benefits of a new chapter.
Wenger accepted Gervinho needed a similar opportunity. He knew a fresh challenge would be an easier one than overcoming the doubters (and the player’s self-doubts) at Arsenal.
Garcia is delighted that he and his protege (this is the third time he has signed Gervinho) have been able to flick the conviction switch so quickly.
Gervinho still has his moments where his unpredictability is too enigmatic even for his team-mates to figure out, but overall his contribution to Roma’s attacking play has been a revelation.
“He is a lad who needs confidence,” Garcia said. “We must understand that the scoring opportunities he creates don’t exist without him there. He can get some wrong but I prefer to have him there because I know he’ll create those opportunities.
“Gervinho has more experience now, is happy with his Roma team-mates and it’s easier for him to play.”
This week, he headed back to Ivory Coast for the first of those scintillating World Cup qualification duels against Senegal. He sat on the plane wearing a maroon cap with his own name on it, and a sizeable medallion round his neck. That is not a look anyone without plenty of confidence can pull off.
– The Guardian