The phrase “to do a Hleb” is something that all Arsenal fans are now familiar with. Players who do a Hleb force moves away from Arsenal to other top European clubs, thinking that this will be the dream move that they always wanted. However, they then struggle to break into the first team (possibly even up being sent out on loan for multiple seasons) and eventually just drop off the edge of the world.
Since Alex Hleb forced a move to Barcelona in 2008, I can think of two more former Arsenal players who have almost completely disappeared and become shadows of their former selves. Mathieu Flamini has struggled to maintain a regular first-team place in Italy, while Manchester City can’t even kick Adebayor out of the door because his wage demands are so high that no other club can take him.
When Barcelona came calling for Alexander Hleb in 2008 it was seemingly impossible to turn them down. Alex was “mentally tired” of living in an amazing house in London and earning lots of money with Arsenal (who wouldn’t be?) and wanted a fresh start. Barcelona was as good a start as any. 32 appearances (15 as a substitute) later, and he was being shipped off on consecutive season-long loans to Stuttgart, Birmingham City and FC Wolfsburg. In January this year, after his Barca contract was cancelled by mutual consent, Hleb spent the second half of the season playing on a short-term contract for Krylia Sovetov Samara in the Russian Premier League. He is now on a 1-month trial contract at Bate Borisov, whom he played for all the way back in 1999.
To his credit, the former Belarus international did win La Liga, the Copa Del Rey and the Champions League in his first and only season in Spain, which is 3 more trophies than he would have won at Arsenal. However, at only 31 years old I don’t think that even he can deny that leaving Arsenal was probably the wrong decision.
Another player who forced his way out of North London at the end of the 2007/08 season is Mathieu Flamini, who left Arsenal for AC Milan on a Bosman free transfer. Flamini was almost definitely attracted, in part, by the higher wages that Milan were able to offer because they didn’t have to pay a transfer fee, although this is something that he will always vehemently deny.
Flamini had one fantastic season at Arsenal when he replaced the ageing Gilberto Silva in the starting line-up, but ended up choosing to walk away rather than become an Arsenal legend. Almost exactly like Hleb, Flamini has since found it pretty hard to break into the Milan starting line-up. He has not had the misfortune of being sent out on loan, but 38 of his 100 appearances for the Rosseneri have been from the bench. He has won won Seria A title and the Italian Supercup, but his lack of playing time and exposure means that despite being only 28 he has not represented the French national team for 4 years (coincidentally since he left Arsenal!).
We all know the story of Emmanuel Adebayor. On the back of one successful 31-goal season and another very average one just after, Manchester City came calling and he was off like a shot because he was overcome by greed. The first 5 months of his stay in Manchester were relatively successful, but once Roberto Mancini took over from Mark Hughes at the end of December 2009 Manu was given very limited first-team opportunities. He has since spent half a season on loan to Real Madrid and a season on loan at Spurs, but neither club were willing/able to sign him permanently because his contract demands are so high. Spurs came close a few weeks ago, but the whole thing now seems to have fallen through. Ade now has around 10 days to find a new club, otherwise he could be sitting on the bench doing nothing until January.
So what of Alex Song? He travels to Barcelona as a replacement for Seydou Keita and probably to fight it out with Sergio Busquets for that defensive midfield role. Only time will dictate whether he will be really successful in La Liga or will be a bit of a flop, wishing that he had never left his comfortable life in North London. I have nothing against Song. He Arsenal career ended pretty abruptly, but his reasons for wanting to leave the club are understandable. Despite making 204 appearances for Arsenal since 2005, he didn’t win a single major trophy. He now moves to Barcelona, the kings of consistency and trophy hoarding. No doubt we will come up against him in the Champions League at some point.