For a player on the verge of a proposed €13 million ($18.4M) move to Arsenal, the 24-year-old Gervinho certainly splits opinion and not just among the London club's fans, who would rather see his Lille teammate Eden Hazard join.
Former France international Emmanuel Petit has questioned whether Gervinho is good enough for Arsenal, while France Football magazine only had him in 25th place in their season ratings. On the other hand, another World Cup winner, Christophe Dugarry, was scandalized that Gervinho was not named France's Player of the Year, and his coach Rudi Garcia called him "the most influential player in one-on-ones in France."
First, some facts: Gervinho contributed massively to Lille's title triumph last season, its first since 1954, and his move to the Premier League, after four years in Ligue 1, is well-deserved. He was the only player in France to reach double figures for goals (15) and assists (10) last season, which is a rarer feat than you might imagine (only two players, Wayne Rooney and Didier Drogba, managed the same in the Premier League). "It's those two statistics together that people fail to underline," Garcia told So Foot magazine.
No team scored more than Lille, whose 4-3-3 system had Gervinho mainly on the right with Eden Hazard left and Moussa Sow, who top-scored with 25 goals, through the middle. The combination worked perfectly, with Hazard winning some matches with individual brilliance, while Gervinho drifted into dangerous positions as an auxiliary striker.
Yet it seems that Hazard's presence has somehow counted against Gervinho, at least in comparisons between the two. Hazard, France's Player of the Year, is undoubtedly a special talent with the skills and mentality to play at the very top level. Gervinho might be one level below his teammate, but taken in isolation -- away from the Hazard comparison -- he remains an extremely strong player, who can get past opponents, cross well, find good positions, and score (in fact, his finishing is far better than Hazard's).
Gervinho has improved every season since taking the well-worn route from Abidjan club ASEC Mimosas to Belgian side Beveren, where his teammates included Yaya Toure, Emmanuel Eboue, Arthur Boka, and Ndri Romaric. In 2007, he signed for Le Mans, but his arrival caused tension: then-coach Frederic Hantz knew nothing about the player who interrupted training one morning and introduced himself to his new teammates. Sports director Daniel Jeandupeux had signed him, and Hantz left that summer. Garcia replaced him, and set about improving Gervinho's consistency and efficiency in front of goal.
"When he was playing for Le Mans, he was very young and still had inconsistencies, but since he's been at Lille he's shown he is capable of playing at the top level regularly," Le Mans technical director Alain Pascalou told France Football. "I think Arsenal corresponds to his youth and his mentality and on top of that, you have Arsene Wenger there, who would be like a guide to him, just as Rudi Garcia was at Lille."
It was Pascalou who helped a young Drogba emerge at Le Mans, and just like the Chelsea forward, Gervinho's upper-body strength has improved considerably in France. He looks slight, but defenders looking to shoulder-barge tend to bounce off him.
Garcia has praised his versatility, but in truth, Gervinho has yet to prove himself in anything other than a 4-3-3 system. Though his profile fits the ideal Premier League winger -- he is fast, brave, can dribble and beat players -- his finishing ability conjures up an intriguing option: to eventually become a center forward. After all, when Arsene Wenger converted Thierry Henry from a winger into a center forward, it didn't turn out too badly.
And so for €13 million, a top-class winger with the potential to develop into a prolific scorer sounds like good business. Arsenal fans have recently grown out of this habit, but perhaps they should do what they used to, and remember that "Arsene Knows."
Ben Lyttleton has written about French football for various publications. He edited an oral history of the European Cup, Match of My Life: European Cup Finals, which was published in 2006.