By Les Crang
“I have a project here that I started four years ago and I wanted to reach the end of it. I could not leave this team at this stage of their development.” - Arsene Wenger
In many ways Denilson is representative of all that is good about Arsene Wenger and all that is bad. Good, in that he’ll give players like Denilson a chance. Bad, in that he’ll give players like Denilson a chance.
To me, Denilson sums up where it all went wrong for Arsene Wenger after winning the F.A Cup in 2005. Denilson was part of what was termed Wenger’s ‘project youth’ from season 2006-2011 roughly. A time when Wenger got rid of older players like Robert Pires, Sol Campbell, Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Gilberto Silva. He replaced them with the like of Theo Walcott, Samir Nasri, Gael Clichy, Cesc Fabregas [non legend] and Denílson Pereira Neves. Oh why did you do it Wenger? Why?
Denilson came to Arsenal from Sao Paulo in July 2006 after making a mere 12 appearances for the club. He came at a fairly hefty price of £3,400,000. He had been the under-17 captain of Brazil in 2005, losing in the final 3-0 to Mexico. Ironically, the first scorer in the final, would be another ‘project youth’ player, Carlos Vela. Therefore, as he was Brazilian, what could possibly go wrong with a midfielder from there? I mean Wenger had picked up two fantastic midfielders previously in Gilberto Silva and Edu? Denilson would be a bit of the same. How wrong we were.
For those that cannot (or don’t want to) remember what project youth was, it was Wenger idea of overhauling his aging stars with kids. A midfield that would on occasions consist of Cesc, Denilson, Theo and Rosicky would have an average age of 22. The idea was two fold. Firstly, Wenger wanted to build a team around Cesc, with Wenger stating as early as 2006:-
I would like to make it clear that Cesc Fabregas is not for sale and we will not be listening to any offers for him,” he said.
Since making his first-team debut nearly three years ago, Cesc has progressed remarkably well, with his performances rightfully earning him a place in the Spain World Cup squad.
At 19 years old, Cesc represents the future of Arsenal Football Club and we are looking forward to him being a major part of our plans for many years to come.
But with Cesc being the attacking option in a midfielder, Denilson was used in the middle as a slightly less attacking midfielder, whilst a defensive midfielder like Mathieu Flamini, Lassana Diarra or Alex Song would act as cover. If Denilson was near to any player comparative it would be the often under rated Gilberto Silva. Silva was often called the Volante in Brazil. Or the invisible wall as we came to know him. In a Guardian interview Gilberto’s role was described thus :-
Arsenal midfield dominated by the surging brilliance of Patrick Vieira. As the leggy and eye-catching Vieira pushed ever forward, Gilberto steadied a free-flowing team.
Denilson though was an invisible wall on many occasions for Arsenal on many times. Invisible, as it was hard to know he was there, not that he did things people did not see.
It was not always that bad for Denilson though. I remember going to the Emirates for a league cup game against Newcastle United when Denilson scored his first goal for the club in 2007 (Bendtner scored the other in a 2-0 win):-
I was pretty impressed with Denilson and his power. Although he looked small in frame, he was busy in the middle, had nice short touches and could hit the ball in front of goal. How mistaken was I?
Soon though, Denilson became the player we would ask ‘what is this Denilson?’ He could score and hit a ball (see below) :-
Denilson, between 2006-11 would play 96 games, scoring six goals. He also got sent off against Blackburn in 2007, which the BBC described thus:-
Referee Mike Riley sent Denilson off in stoppage time for a dangerous two-footed challenge on David Dunn which triggered a melee between both teams.
Was he a defensive midfielder? Well, he hardly seemed to have the frame for tackling. Was he an attacking midfielder? Well, he didn’t have the speed of feet or mind of Cesc. Was he a wide midfielder? Again, he seemed too ponderous for that. But still Wenger choose him.
Its not that Denilson did not try in his time at Arsenal (unlike say, Bendtner?). When Alex Song went to the African cup of nations, Denilson offered to take up the defensive midfielder role saying:-
If the boss said, ‘Denilson, I want you to stay back’, I will stay back.
Its also not as if Denilson was not (reportedly) highly regarded by other teams, with Seville said to be offering £13 million for him in 2011.
But for many of us, Denilson just seemed a very poor version of Gilberto Silva. As Robert Exley said of Gilberto in comparison to Denilson:-
There was also the estrangement of ‘invincible’ season veteran Gilberto Silva, who had been sidelined all season and thus was moved on to Panathinaikos over the summer. At 32 years of age Gilberto would still have been able to do a job in the premiership, however Wenger opted to place (or rather misplaced) faith in his fellow young countryman Denilson, who as it turned out was woefully ill-equipped to turn out for a side hoping to challenge for honours.
Also, although Wenger had kept choosing Denilson (when not injured), he could obviously see a young lad by the name of Jack Wilshere who came to the forefront in season 2010-11. Denilson short passes which often went backwards or sideways, was overlooked for Jacks all action style of play.
So why did we buy Denilson? Honestly? It seems partly that Arsene Wenger had fallen into what Alex Bellos reported in his excellent book about Brazilian football,Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life:-
It’s easier to place a Brazilian footballer in any team than it is a footballer of any nation. There is a worldwide fad for Brazilians. It’s sad to say, but it is much easier selling a crap Brazilian than Brilliant Mexican.
Although Denilson has since moved back to Sao Paulo last year, after a years loan, he never did make the international team. Arsenal also got no money for him and were paying him allegedly £50,000 per week (which they had to cover whilst he was on loan in Brazil). Denilson was one expensive mistake. Luckily, Wenger has never returned to the Brazilian market after this poor buy? Damn, I forgot he went for worst in Andre Santos.