To look at Samir Nasri you would not necessarily think of him as an athlete, a footballer capable of quite breathtaking feats of technical intricacy. Scrawny, fragile and buck-toothed, Arsenal’s French midfield playmaker is an unlikely maestro, but a maestro all the same.
Imbued with a rare tenacity and the spirit of the fight, Nasri combines an iron will with a precise and direct form of elegance on the ball. The 23 year-old’s performances this season have been those of a player entering the prime of his career; the range of his passing, efficiency of his dribbling and quality of his finishing have improved dramatically over the last eight to ten months. Since arriving in North London a raw and fiery attacking midfielder with great potential, the Marseille-born Nasri has blossomed into one of the finest ‘modern’ playmakers in English football.
A Comfortable Versatility
One of the Frenchman’s greatest assets is his attacking versatility, his ability to play on either flank or through the middle in a 4-2-3-1 with equal ease. In the league his best performances have generally come when deployed on the right side by Arsène Wenger; Nasri’s stunning displays against Manchester City and Everton both saw him start the game in a wide right position.
Relishing the space afforded by defences which played relatively deep against Arsenal, Nasri recorded pass completion rates of 85% and 88% respectively – extremely good for a wide player – and recorded a goal and an assist against City in the process. Seemingly most dangerous when given space to run into with the ball, Nasri’s rapid and unpredictable gait gives him the ability to beat markers, come inside and get into dangerous positions around the edge of the penalty are with stunning regularity.
Of course, that is not to say that Nasri necessarily has a ‘strongest’ position. Against West Bromwich Albion back in September he played centrally in the absence of Cesc Fábregas and, despite a surprise defeat, impressed many with his vision and creativity, scoring Arsenal’s two goals as they went down 3-2 to Roberto Di Matteo’s side.
However, perhaps Nasri’s most intriguing position is that in which he has statistically been used the least this season – the left side. A naturally right-footed player, on the odd occasion that the Frenchman has been deployed on the left he has enjoyed a good deal of success as an ‘inverted’ winger, cutting inside onto his stronger foot to create a new angle of attack. He did this to great effect in the 5-1 win over Shakhtar Donetsk in October and again against Chelsea this week when he recorded a pass completion rate of 86% (43/50) and saw all three of his attempts find the target.
Indeed, the majority of Nasri’s best moments in both of the games in question came when he exploited the fluidity of Arsenal’s attack to drift off his wing, away from the attentions of the right full-back and into more central areas of the attacking third. His goal and assist for Marouane Chamakh against Shakhtar were the perfect illustration of the significant threat he poses when given the chance to play on the ‘opposite’ wing, adding an extra dimension to Wenger’s plan of attack.
Room for Improvement?
All of the effusive praise that has been thrown Nasri’s way so far is not to say that the Frenchman’s game is without its flaws. An attacking midfielder who is quickly compiling the skills required to become a more complete playmaker, the solitary Premier League assist to the former Marseille player’s name this season shows that, despite having made significant improvements to his passing, Nasri is still struggling to unlock defences with ‘killer’ final balls on at least a semi-regular basis.
One of the hallmarks of Nasri’s game when he first came to England was his seeming reluctance to pass the ball forwards; sideways and backwards being the frequent direction of his distribution. Although that initial reluctance to pass more directly looks to have been left behind, there are occasionally to be seen traces of it in his general play, a trait which goes some way to explaining the relative dearth of assists in relation to the amount of time Nasri spends in the final third of the field.
As with all players, Samir Nasri has his weaknesses and imperfections, but his recent rate of improvement has been astonishing, and, with some work on his final ball and the diligence of his tracking back, there’s no reason why he can’t go on to become one of the leading lights of European football.
The Emerging Force
An increasingly key player for Arsenal and, in the rebuilding period since the catastrophe of the World Cup, France, Nasri’s superlative form has seen him come to be considered as an early contender for the Premier League’s seasonal ‘Player of the Year’ award.
With both Fábregas and Robin Van Persie having missed large numbers of games through injury, Nasri has taken his extra creative responsibilities in his stride this season, adapting to the situation thrust upon him with remarkable ease. In time I have little doubt that we will look back on 2010 as the year when Samir Nasri realised his talents and truly came of age as a footballer.