Stopping Gervinho: A Strange Analysis

Paolo Bruno

Space may be the final frontier, but it's also the key to stopping a player like Gervinho. Whether they suffocate or surrender to him, Serie A defenses can't seem to unwrap this enigma. We take a look at each approach and find a rather strange result.

Roma fans, as much as we love the club--its history and its colorful characters--are a pessimistic bunch, always a step away from the proverbial ledge. Never was this truer than this past summer when Roma fans were faced with the prospect of our beloved club signing Gervais Lombe Yao Kouassi a/k/a Gervinho, a/k/a Arsenal Castoff, a/k/a Mr. Wide of The Mark.

Gervinho's Gunner career wasn't just controversial or disappointing, it was damn near laughable, known as much for fizzle as flash. Sure, he'd astound you with his pace, his dribbling and his hair accessories, but those moments were too often punctuated with miscues, missteps, and horrific misfires. In case you'd forgotten our initial take on this risky venture, have a look here or here. Yours truly wasn't above the fray, either.

While Gervais Yao Kouassi, a.k.a Gervinho, has some redeeming qualities, one has to wonder if it weren't for Rudi Garcia's pining for their glory days together at Lille, would Roma persist as much as they have? I can't seem to recall a transfer target in recent years thats been as divisive as Gervinho. On the one hand, his numbers (five goals, three assists in 18 appearances) aren't that bad, and he does have the ability to take on defenders and create chances. But when you dig a bit deeper, these numbers lose some sheen, as his success rate in those take ons is pitiful, his conversion rate on goals substandard, and his passing percentage is nothing to write home about, especially for a player in an advanced role.

But Rudi clearly sees something within him, something that leads him to believe those offensive inefficiencies will suddenly thrive in Serie A, that he's somehow the perfect complement to Totti and Lamela, that his partial bald spot will mesh with Bradleys resplendently waxed dome. But what's even stranger is that his speculative move is making people clamor for Pablo Osvaldo, who, while not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, is a proven goal scorer, the same of which cannot be said for Gervinho.

If Gervinho hadn't completely fallen on his face during his time at the Emirates, at the very least, he had some minor abrasions...probably on his forehead, Im guessing.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum (If I haven't completely exhausted any and all Ancient Roman references by now, give it a few more weeks), Gervinho has become a bit of a revelation this season, albeit a confounding one.

His Coppa heroics notwithstanding, there's no debating the fact that Mr. Kouassi has had an erratic season. Starting with the dizzying highs of August and September, to the doldrums of November, to his mini resurgence over the past few weeks, Gervinho, though relatively productive, just hasn't been able to string together more than a handful of decent appearances at a time. (Full disclosure, this piece took root before his four goals-three assists-in-five-match spell)

It doesn't take more than a decent set of peepers to understand what Gervinho does well: run, run, run and run some more, with intermittent fits of dribbling in between. But it is pretty, we'll give him that, and, as we've seen over the past several weeks, when he can harness it, he is among the league's most dangerous players.

When a novice like me can pick out how Gervinho got his groove back, you can bet your bottom Euro that your average Serie A manager knows the key to stopping Gervinho...space. The only wrinkle to that seemingly obvious solution is how much room do you afford Gervinho?

Do you press on him, denying space to unleash that first step, or do you ease back, giving him an inch but not relenting the mile, instead relying on your defensive shape or his own impatience to push him off course?

To answer that question--or, much like the man himself, skirt around it and hope you hit the mark--let's take a look at a few examples of both approaches. I think you'll notice something quite odd.

Gervinho Gone Bad

Remember, we're pessimists, so let's accentuate the negative first.

Gervinho_hm_cagliari_medium

Gervinho vs Cagliari, November 25th

Once again, catering to the obvious, you can see just how deep into the attacking third Cagliari let Gervinho get in this match, opting to let Gervino essentially tire himself out, waiting until the last drop to put the clamps on him. On the whole, Gervinho completed 86% of his matches, which is quite solid, but when his passes did go astray, it was often when he approached the penalty area, as did his shooting. G-ho had three shots on goal against Cagliari, each coming within mere feet of the goal, two of which, in traditional Gervinho fashion, went well wide of the mark.

All told, Gervinho had 48 touches in this match, the majority of which were within the 18 yard box, with significant concentrations closer to the six. Cagliari went with the bend but not break approach to Gervinho in this match, opting to let Gervinho advance towards the end line with relative ease, preferring to rely on a combination his poor decision making and last man tackles to stop him.

It doesn't always work, but Cagliari successfully opted to let Gervinho be his own worst enemy.

Now, contrast this to the approach taken by Juventus. Before you even think it, yes, I realize the chasm in quality between these two opponents is epic, so just suspend your disbelief for a few moments.

Gervinho_aa_juve_medium

Gervinho vs Juventus, January 5th

The Old Lady took the complete opposite approach in this league match, choosing, instead, to pick up Gervinho as soon as Roma crossed the center strip and, in some instances, even in Roma's own defensive third. Again, this is Juve we're dealing with, the best defensive side in the league, so it may not be the best example, but they opted to employ a full court press, if you will, not only getting up in G-Ho's grill, but keeping him as far away from the goal as possible. Though he did make his way towards Buffon's hood (we're gonna continue to roll with this vernacular, like it or not), he did so nearly a third less than against Cagliari.

Juve, by choosing to close down on Gervinho, both in the global and local sense, effectively kept him pinned to the sidelines some 35-40 yards from the goal. This approach was effective on two fronts; in the micro sense, they closed down on Gervinho's personal space, thereby robbing him of the ability to make the first move, while, in the macro sense (I think, I haven't taken econ in ages), they chose to harass Gervinho before he entered the final third, using the broader strategy to essentially nullify the need for the finite strategy.

These were two of Gervinho's poorer performances this season, each elicited by drastically different approaches--well, maybe not drastically, but certainly a few shades apart--and they both worked for different reasons. Juve robbed Gervinho of his first step, kept him confined to the sidelines and away from the goal, while Cagliari preferred to keep Gervinho in front of them, relying instead on increased pressure in the penalty area and general defensive cohesion to render him ineffective.

But Gervinho has already surpassed his offensive output from last season, so clearly he's done a few things right, so let's see how this same strange dynamic works the opposite way.

Gervinho Gone Good

As always, these examples are the extremes of Gervinho, with the next two being, as the title awkwardly suggests, from the greener side of the grass. In this instance, the difference between the two good examples isn't quite as stark as what we just witnessed, so grant me some clemency. After all, where else can you find nearly 2,000 words on Gervinho?

First up, Bologna.

Gervinho_hm_bologna_medium

Gervinho vs Bologna, September 29th

This match featured a more relaxed approach to quelling the Gervinho storm, as Bologna, much like Cagliari before them, chose to give Gervinho a little bit of lead on the leash. Unfortunately for the Rossoblu, it didn't work quite as well. Gervinho's dribbling was on full display in this match, both in aesthetics and effects, as he pulled off two successful dribbles and even drew two fouls; his dribbling not only created space, but it forced the Bologna defenders to make mistakes. However, unlike Cagliari's approach, Bologna did not put adequate enough pressure on Gervinho once he reached the 18, allowing Gervinho to quickly lay the ball off and continue his forward momentum virtually unmolested. To top it all off, his shooting was perfect; two goals, two shots.

One slight difference between the Cagliari and Bologna approaches, at least in terms of Rudi Garcia's countermeasures to the lax defense, was the number of touches afforded to Gervinho, 48 to 27, respectively. In the Bologna match, Garcia chose to accentuate Gervinho's off the ball movement, focusing on quick reverse passes and forward runs. To wit, 87% of his passes were backwards, as he briefly held up play on the wings, laying the ball off to the midfielders, then proceeding to make quick, diagonal runs into the box. So, although his touches were somewhat increased, they were quick and decisive.

Now, when combating the backed off Bologna defense, Garcia opted for a less is more approach, countering Bologna's withdrawn defensive shell (at least as far as Gervinho is concerned) with a more tandem approach, allowing play to build up around Gervinho, rather than letting Gervinho steam headlong into the box by his lonesome.

Gervinho_aa_samp_medium

Gervinho vs Sampdoria, September 25th

Now, in this match we see an opponent who decided to take a different tact; to pick up Gervinho closer to midfield, get in his chest, and deny him any room to move. Granted, Sampdoria is not Juventus, but in this match their similar approaches produced radically different results. Where Juve's pressure stifled Gervinho, denying him room to dodge, dip, dive, duck and dodge, Sampdoria's was left wanting, as Gervinho slalomed around the Samp defenders at will, to the tune of five dribbles, two fouls drawn and one goal from one shot.

See? Gervinho gone good.

A New Efficiency

Lost amid this waterfall of words was a mea culpa of sorts. The groundwork for this piece was laid a few weeks ago, before Gervinho became (let's face it), Roma's most dangerous offensive weapon. Whatever Garcia whispered in his ear has done wonders, in his last four matches, Gervinho has slotted home four goals, created 11 scoring chances and chipped in three assists. Quite simply, he's been Roma's best player in 2014.

Across all competitions, Gervinho has eight goals, averages 1.8 key passes per match, 2.6 dribbles per match, and has placed 64% of his shots on goal, while converting on nearly 20% of his shots, both at or near the top of Roma's heap. The areas in which he flounder while under Wenger's tutelage--efficiency and consistency--have all but vanished through his first season in Rome.

The ugly Emirates chapter of his career may finally be done and dusted; he is a man transformed.

Conclusions: Are There Any?

But there was a reason this signing was so fraught with peril in the first place; Gervinho tantalizes with his highlight worthy acceleration, dribbling ability, and quick feet; characteristics which make it nearly impossible to keep him away from the goal. But, it's those same traits that often lead him off course; pushing him wide of, or, in some cases, past the goal, too far removed and too late to effectively threaten the keeper. Sometimes it seems his feet move to fast for his eyes, spraying shots far and wide, the climax never quite matching the buildup.

The examples above were meant to illustrate this very dichotomy; his cacophony of skills and his ability to keep them in tune are so often on different tracks, there really is no surefire way to slow him down; he is that enigmatic. However, unlike many a Roma winger before him, the uncertainty in his performance doesn't rest upon some sort of Mancinian question about his desire, but rather the simple fear of the unknown; you just never know week-to-week if the dribbling and pace will do its trick, and, as the examples above proved, neither do the opposition.

Whether you play him loose or strict, the results are as varied as the man himself. Perhaps being an enigma is his greatest threat; if he were more consistent, more straightforward, and more predictable, defenses could take a more measured approach.

In football, as in many professions, a change in scenery is often the key to self-actualization; new surroundings and a new mission can do wonders for one's spirit, injecting motivation into a sea of malaise. So, whether it's due to the Trevi Fountain, Rodrigo Taddei's warming embrace, or Rudi Garcia's sage counsel, in Roma, Gervinho has finally found an incubator for his once withering career.

*graphics via squawka.com

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