Tomas Rosicky closed him down ferociously, mugging Danny Rose on the halfway line while carrying the ball effortlessly towards a one-on-one confrontation with Hugo Lloris in goal. The ball seemed attached to his right boot on a string as he drove towards the penalty area. Though it appeared to get stuck under his feet at the vital moment, the little Czech was locked in concentration, brushing off Kyle Walker as he scooped his shot coolly over the onrushing goalkeeper to grab the second goal as Arsenal dumped their fiercest rivals, Tottenham Hotspur, out of the FA Cup third round.
That was back in January 2014. Rosicky had turned 33 the previous October, settling into what would be for most midfielders, especially at the top level, the twilight years. He made 27 appearances in 2013/14, but has had to settle for 15 this campaign, with just five starts in the Premier League. Many thought the 2014/15 season would be his last with Arsenal, and rumors of a transfer began to percolate.
Yet the club announced last Friday that the two parties had agreed on an extension to his Arsenal contract. It will take him through 2017 and to more than ten years of service to the club. He will, by the end of next season, have earned himself a testimonial.
The Czech player is a year older than the club captain Mikel Arteta, 33, but he still has the look of a much younger man. There’s a zip in his step, a relish for the game still apparent when he came on as a substitute against Sunderland last week. Perhaps that’s because his legs don’t have nearly the mileage on them that those of most players his age do. Perhaps it’s because he cherishes every second on the pitch.
The little maestro has, after all, had a torrid time with injury.
Having moved to Arsenal from Borussia Dortmund in May 2006 for an undisclosed fee as a direct replacement for the departing Robert Pires, he slotted straight into the left side of the Arsenal midfield. He was a worthy successor to the Frenchman, if not quite at Pires’ level: fantastic in possession, a willing runner beyond his teammates, and an occasional goal threat.
The Gunners finished fourth in what would prove to be Thierry Henry’s last season at the club. His departure, along with Freddie Ljungberg and Jose Antonio Reyes, marked the end of an era. The next Arsene Wenger team, led by a dynamic young midfielder named Cesc Fabregas, was about to come to the fore. It would prove to be as aesthetically pleasing as it was ultimately disappointing, and Rosicky would play his part.
The Gunners went undefeated into December of the 2007/08 season, playing a brand of dizzying, free-flowing football spilling over with delightful passing moves and breathtaking goals. The attacking midfield of Fabregas, Rosicky and Aleksandr Hleb formed the engine of a fine-tuned machine, keeping possession for minutes at a time as they laid siege to the opposition penalty area with one-twos, wall passes, and intricate through balls that sliced through the heart of the defense. They would pass teams to death. They’d make it look easy.
“Arsenal,” said the legendary Pele in November, “are my favourite team right now.”
Rosicky’s luck would soon run out, though, and so would Arsenal’s. He tore his hamstring in an FA Cup tie against Newcastle in January and did not play again that season. Later that month, Eduardo’s catastrophic compound leg fracture in a draw with Birmingham struck a vital psychological blow into a young Arsenal side. At the final whistle, captain William Gallas collapsed on the St. Andrew’s pitch, and Arsenal’s season went with him. They would finish trophy-less, third place in the league.
By the next season Rosicky had still not found fitness. “We are a little bit speechless because we feel it is all going well,” said Arsene Wenger in September 2008. “Nobody at the club can tell me whether he will be back on November 10, December 10 or December 31. Nobody knows with him.” Ultimately, that uncertainty was justified. As the Arsenal medical team struggled to identify the problem, Rosicky did not play a single game for Arsenal in the 2007/08 season.
He did not feature again until September 2009, when he scored and assisted Robin van Persie in a 4-2 loss to Manchester City. By that time, the Premier League landscape had shifted considerably. City had been bought by the Abu Dhabi United Group and invested 150 million pounds in the playing squad, including in Arsenal players Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Adebayor. Manchester United had won the title twice as Cristiano Ronaldo became the world’s best player for a time, and Chelsea and Liverpool had pushed on domestically and in Europe.
Arsenal had missed their window, and Rosicky had missed the experience altogether. The North London club seldom looked like challenging for the Premier League after 2008, and that team eventually fell apart. Fabregas departed for Barcelona in the summer of 2011, following Henry and Hleb to Catalonia. Samir Nasri and Gael Clichy followed the others to Manchester City. And van Persie, Rosicky’s near-constant companion in the treatment room before his final, prolific season, departed to bitter rivals Manchester United a year later.
Much like when the Henry team broke up, however, Rosicky remained. While he has managed more than 25 games in a season just twice since his arrival at the club, he has been regularly fit-if not a frequent starter-since 2013. And he has chipped in with some impressive performances and some vital goals.
Three months after that derby win in the FA Cup in January 2014, Arsenal met Spurs again at White Hart Lane for a league edition of the North London derby. Arsenal’s number 7 was integral once again, exchanging passes with Jack Wilshere as they broke into the right side of the Spurs penalty area and lashing the winner into the top left corner.
In between those victories, Arsenal faced Sunderland in the league. With the Gunners ahead 2-0, Rosicky picked up the ball in the inside right channel, drifting inside and finding Santi Cazorla. He continued running as Cazorla flashed the ball across him to Jack Wilshere, who touched it back to the Czech. With another touch he found Olivier Giroud, posted up in the opposition backline, for a wall pass. Rosicky ran beyond him, latched onto the return, beat the keeper with a deft flick and wheeled away to the corner flag. Four players, six touches, and one mesmeric goal. It had more than a few shades of that smooth-passing juggernaut of 2007.
“He is one of the players who plays the game of give-and-move and he is a great accelerator of the game,” said Arsene Wenger. “He always makes things happen, not with individual dribbling but with individual acceleration of his passing and his runs. His goal was one of the top goals we have scored.”
In those moments, against Spurs and Sunderland, he demonstrated many of the qualities that have earned him such plaudits from Arsenal fans and from football aesthetes in the Wenger mold.
He presses hard and high up the pitch without the ball, making opposition defenders work in possession. He is a dynamic force once on the ball, injecting a change of pace into an Arsenal team whose metronomic passing can prove too predictable at times. He has impeccable timing and an eye for crucial goals. But above all, he brings a kind of cooperative artistry in possession, directing the team’s intricate pass-and-move patterns into a thrilling crescendo as “the Little Mozart.”
In many ways, Rosicky is a microcosm for Arsenal’s philosophy, and its shortcomings, since the club moved from historic Highbury to the state-of-the-art Emirates Stadium. He is a sublime attacking midfield talent, yes, but he is also slight of build and inescapably prone to injury, a summer flower that too often seems to wilt in the harsh conditions of Stoke-on-Trent in January.
He is inconsistently extraordinary. Like both of Wenger’s teams following the Invincibles, he’s the one you want to watch but not the one you’d bet on. And yet, how much of it all is circumstance? How much is bad luck? What if Rosicky had remained fit in 2007/08, or his 21-year-old teammates had not watched Eduardo have his leg broken in half, or van Persie had been fit to help Adebayor score the goals at the end of all those delicious passing moves? What would that team have gone on to do?
Arsenal’s story in the Emirates era is dominated by questions of the “what if” variety. One such question relates to whether having more experienced players in the squad-like Robert Pires, who, per club policy for players over 30, was never offered a contract extension longer than 12 months-might have helped the young squads of 2007 through 2012 weather the many storms of injury and inconsistency.
To Wenger’s credit, he has adjusted his age policies in recent years. Just as he has largely abandoned the grand youth plan of the Fabregas years, he has also proved more willing to keep elder statesmen around. Rosicky is a prime example, joining Arteta and Per Mertesacker among the old heads around the dressing room for another season. They and their younger teammates broke the trophy duck last May, and have the chance to defend their FA Cup title this weekend against Aston Villa at Wembley.
Surely, though, they’ll be hoping that next year they’ll have the right mix of talent and experience-and perhaps the top-class goalkeeper-to sustain a title challenge into the spring months. Even if it’s not week-in and week-out, the Little Mozart may finally get to conduct a better orchestra.