By Josh Clarke at the Emirates Stadium
The wry smile that accompanied Arsene Wenger’s knowing statement that the club “turns all [their] wingers into central strikers” wasn’t without good reason following Gervinho’s stand-out performance in Arsenal's 6-1 mauling of Southampton.
During his time in north London the Gunners' boss has made a habit of redefining the roles of his players, with his greatest accomplishments involving the nurturing of mercurial wingers into predatory strikers - Thierry Henry being the stand-out example.
Arsenal’s all-time leading goalscorer made the grade as a promising winger at Monaco and endured an indifferent spell at Juventus before being crafted by Wenger into a breed of centre-forward the like of which was previously unseen in world football.
Robin van Persie is another example. The £2.75m acquisition from Feyenoord came with the tag of a petulant and unreliable left winger. He left as one of the most accomplished and natural finishers in Premier League history.
| PLAYER RATING | GERVINHO
||Dominated the first half with an interesting display as a 'false nine' who pulled the Southampton back four all over the shop. Took his first goal well and showed good instinct to finish his second.|
Despite this distinguished record, eyebrows were raised in the Emirates press box as it became evident after five minutes against Southampton that the lively but erratic winger Gervinho would play through the middle, rather that the more likely candidate Lukas Podolski.
After the Ivorian ran absolute riot in the first half, it didn’t take long for the brows to sink back down.
"He is such a great mover and he is so quick that when he wants to get ahead of the central defender, it's difficult to catch him,” remarked Wenger after the game.
"I decided that during our tour of Asia, when I tried to play him in that position against Man City, I liked what he did and I put that in the back of my mind."
Sadly, from Southampton's point of view, not far back enough for a disjointed Saints rearguard.
As his side’s focal attacking point Gervinho offered fleet-footed mobility and intelligent running, dropping in deep and working the channels from inside to out, providing the Gunners with an offensive potency previously unseen this term.
|7/1||Gervinho is 7/1 with William Hill to score the first goal in Montpellier v Arsenal
The fluidity Gervinho’s play brought to Arsenal’s attacking display, when combined with Podolski and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s willingness to ghost in off the wing and Santi Cazorla’s constant ability to float in between the lines, led to a first-half rout that killed the Saints off.
Not only did Gervinho’s deployment as a front man prove a tactical success – it seemed to bring the best out of the Ivorian on an individual level as well.
Gone was the chronic dithering and indecisiveness that characterised him last season, replaced by a directness and eagerness to pull the trigger, best encapsulated by the first time, near-post finish that put the Gunners 3-0 up.
It was fully deserved that Gervinho – who notched just four goals in 26 league appearances last term – scored his first goal of the calendar year and managed to achieve 50 per cent of last year’s tally after just one afternoon’s work.
In what must be regarded as a successful audition, Gervinho has proved himself a viable alternative to an evidently unready Olivier Giroud in terms of fitting into a gaping Van Persie-shaped hole.
The Ivorian's moment in the sun would have come as a further blow to Theo Walcott’s claims for a centre-forward berth. Indeed, Wenger’s post-match assertions that Walcott still needs a while to fully grasp the subtleties of the role, suggested the England man would have to wait a while yet.
Despite Southampton forcing Manchester City and Manchester United to go the distance in the early weeks of the season, context is still needed. Nigel Adkins’ side were found to be desperately lacking on the day and the question remains to be answered as to whether Gervinho can perform as effectively as a centre-forward against stingier defences.
With the Gunners set to face Premier League champions City after their midweek Champions League opener against Montpellier, Wenger could and should utilise Gervinho against the same opposition against whom his proficiency in his new role was first realised back in the summer.