Eurospot: Nasri malaise gives France les Bleus
As he orchestrated a move from Arsenal to Manchester City last summer, Samir Nasri articulated his motivation in strident terms: "We already earn huge wages. The priority is to make a big career and to win titles ... with no titles under your belt, you can't be in the list for the Ballon d'Or."
The inference was clear: this was a player who felt he belonged in the game’s upper echelons, jostling for space on FIFA’s stage alongside the likes of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and, yes, Shakira. The microclimate of Arsenal, where he and his team-mates were beset by annual disappointment, was not conducive to the pursuit of personal excellence. Meanwhile City, with their endless resources and formidable aspirations, could provide an environment in which trophies and accolades would be more readily forthcoming.
As Roberto Mancini’s side sit top of the Premier League at the start of 2012, there is every chance that Nasri’s hunger for a first trophy since the European Under-17 Championship in 2004 will be sated this season. But validation on a personal level may be harder to achieve. Because, in recent months, the player who so dazzled last season with Arsenal has lapsed, submerged in a sea of brighter City stars.
Having been installed as the creative hub of Laurent Blanc’s rejuvenated France side following his perplexing expulsion from the 2010 World Cup squad – a snub that counter-intuitively worked in his favour, as he remained untainted by the disastrous rebellion at Knysna – it is not only Nasri who is mulling over his loss of form at club level. It has also become a matter for national debate.
After all, it was Nasri who dazzled at Wembley in November 2010 as Les Bleus defeated England 2-1 to demonstrate that, four months on from the disaster of South Africa, here was a French side worthy of the name again. Nasri - who held his nerve to convert the penalty that held Bosnia-Herzegovina to a 1-1 draw in Paris and confirmed France’s place at the finals in October - along with Karim Benzema, Adil Rami and Yann M’Vila, has been a leading light of Blanc’s new France.
In such a context it is unsurprising his current travails are a matter of real concern in France. Following a ghostly performance in the 3-2 FA Cup defeat to Manchester United last weekend, Liberation ran a story with the headline ‘Samir Nasri, un fantome chez les Citizens’, which requires little in the way of translation.
What had happened to the brilliant midfielder shortlisted for the PFA Player of the Year award in 2011 after a quite fantastic season with Arsenal? How could it be the case that in the calendar year of 2011 he had an inferior minutes per goal ratio than the much lamented Sebastien Squillaci? In France, with Euro 2012 very much on the horizon, the malaise that has embraced Blanc’s playmaker par excellence is becoming troubling.
A simplistic reading of the situation would be that Nasri has suffered in comparison to the wonderful talent that is David Silva, and forcing himself to be subservient to the Spaniard has impacted on his own form. Fine in theory, but of course the presence of Cesc Fabregas at Arsenal meant Nasri was only rarely afforded the luxury of being the focal point of Arsene Wenger’s side.
When he did play though the centre in the absence of Fabregas he could produce stunning performances such as in the 5-0 Champions League demolition of Porto in March 2010 when he scored a goal of quite brilliant quality. But conversely, much of his best work came in tandem with the Catalan, and when tasked with a role out wide.
Indeed, his first match as a City player promised to be the start of another productive partnership, this time with Silva. Stationed out on the left, Nasri combined superbly with his new team-mate in a 5-1 hammering of Tottenham at White Hart Lane on August 28, collecting more assists in 90 minutes (3) than he did in the entirety of the 2010-11 season with Arsenal. More followed against Wigan and Blackburn (2) by the start of October, but by contrast goals have been in terribly short supply and devoid of any real importance, Nasri only finding the net in big wins over Blackburn, Wolves and Norwich.
Nasri’s decidedly mixed performances have not gone unnoticed by his manager. In December, Roberto Mancini told the press: “I think that Nasri is a champion, a top, top player, but I think he can do more. When you change team, sometimes you can have a problem, but I would like him to play better because he is a top player. His mind at the moment - his confidence - is maybe not very good.”
It was said that concerns over his defensive input, particularly highlighted in the tempestuous 2-0 defeat to Bayern Munich that saw Carlos Tevez burn his bridges with the club, had convinced Mancini the midfielder was too much of a liability for the bigger games, a perception undiminished when Nasri himself admitted that "defensively, I have to improve".
However, another theory has also been advanced of late.
Immediately it must be said that the testimony of Raymond Domenech must be handled with some care. After all, this was the man who chose to leave Nasri out of the 2010 World Cup squad and allegedly turned to the astrology pages when picking his national teams, but as a key figure in the French national set-up for a number of years – for better or worse, and largely the latter – his account makes for instructive reading.
"Nasri needs to talk less and play more,” Domenech said this week. “He needs to be focused on his work to show he can be a big player. For me, he has talent but is irregular and for a big club it's not positive. Nasri is always in discussions and is interested in excessive individualism. To triumph it's necessary to believe more in your team-mates and the team."
The perception of Nasri as a diva, an individual, is not a new one in French discourse. After all, it was he who was accused by William Gallas in an autobiography of refusing to show due respect to Thierry Henry when not giving up his seat on the French bus for the nation’s all-time record goalscorer during Euro 2008 – an accusation that drove a rift between the two then Arsenal team-mates and continues to colour perceptions of the midfielder. Certainly it also feeds back into the motivation behind his exit from Arsenal – that desire to be recognised as one of the finest players on the planet.
A fantastic tournament in Poland and Ukraine would certainly help cement such a reputation. But at present, Nasri's struggles at Manchester City are cause for real concern for both club and country. That Ballon d'Or appears out of reach.