There’s a piece in today’s Daily Mail about Nicklas Bendtner, and laboured and slightly fond of itself though the article is, it serves as an intriguing reminder that the Dane will wear an Arsenal shirt for the first time in over two years tonight.
It’s not a long-awaited comeback, because there probably aren’t many Arsenal fans who have been crossing days of their calendars since they last saw Bendtner, but it is an interesting sub-plot to a mundane league cup evening.
When you think of footballers who have been let down by their attitudes, invariably Bendtner comes to mind: he’s an example of someone who has an impressive collection of tangible attributes, but yet fails to add-up to the sum of his parts.
Some will contest that ‘tangible attributes’ claim, but it’s a fair assessment: he has the size, technique, and goal-scoring ability to be very prominent indeed at Premier League and continental level – he’s never been a twenty-goal a season forward, but his all-round contribution should have been far more valuable than it ultimately was.
Whenever you discuss the difference between what a player is, and what he should be, the conversation tends to focus on the red flags within that individual’s personality, and that’s certainly true of Bendtner. In the past, he’s been arrogant to the point of delusion, hasn’t kept his body in an appropriate condition for a professional athlete, and has shown himself to be far too fond of nights-out and of providing the newspapers with boozy anecdotes. Mix all of that up, and how well was the early part of his career ever going to go?
By saying that Bendtner has ‘attitude issues’, what’s really meant is that he’s chronically immature. When he was eighteen, the Dane spent a successful loan spell at St Andrews with Birmingham City, and his performances were good enough for the Arsenal fans to be excited by the prospect of his return. When he did find a place in Arsene Wenger’s first-eleven, in the 2007/08 season, the projections about his talent look to be completely accurate, and he looked to have an assured future in North London.
Some young players take that in their stride, but some don’t – and Bendtner was in the latter grouping.
I remembering reading an interview with him years ago, in which he admitted that he took very little interest in football beyond his own personal involvement; that’s always stuck with me. If a player is unaware of the realities of the game – the fluctuations in form, the natural peaks and troughs – then he is less likely to be able to adapt to those situations as and when he encounters them, and that’s probably one of the key factors in Bendtner’s self-derailment. When times were good, at Birmingham and Arsenal, all was well, but when he started to miss chances and incur the wrath of his own fans, he had almost no understanding of how to deal with it. His confidence flat-lined, his focus seemed to drift away from the game, and for the first time he began to look insecure within his surroundings.
Interestingly, at some point during the 2009/10 season, I watched him lead the line for his country against Sweden, and I remember thinking that he looked like a completely different player: he was strong in possession, intricate and technically-impressive with the ball at his feet, and he performed a genuine target-man role which contributed to the Danes winning the game. He was great, really, really good – but in a way that he never managed to be for Arsenal.
This is where the maturity issue is relevant.
When a mentally-fragile player is assured of his place, and has no self-doubt regarding his role within a side – as was the case for him with his country – he flourishes, and plays without inhibition. However, put the same player in a situation in which he has to fight for his place and justify his selection on a game-to-game basis and he will struggle. Essentially, Bendtner didn’t have the psychological tools to deal with having, probably for the first time in his career, his ability questioned.
Amazingly, he is still just twenty-five, and so talking about his talent in the past tense is premature – he didn’t get the chance to move away from Arsenal in the Summer, and so it will be fascinating to see if he’s learnt anything from his aborted start, and whether he’s now in a position to marry those tangible attributes with an older head.