Tomas Rosicky is a metalhead, but his play exhibited the time signatures of Mozart. We say farewell to Arsenal’s most painful “what ifs” in recent history.
January 2014, the third round of the FA Cup. Arsenal vs Tottenham. With 30 minutes to play, Arsenal have only a one-nil lead to show for their domination. Tottenham, sensing an opportunity, have begun to push for an equaliser. But Tomas Rosicky isn’t having any of that, and we all know how much he loves a goal against this lot. With the rest of Tottenham’s team in Arsenal’s half, the ball is played back to Danny Rose on the halfway line. Rosicky is closing down, without an obvious pass forward, Rose tries to Cruyff-turn his way out of trouble. It doesn’t work. Rosicky wins the ball, putting himself through on goal – only 50 odd yards of pristine grass between him and Hugo Lloris. The rocket-footed Kyle Walker flies back in pursuit, but it doesn’t matter. Four perfect touches take Rosicky into the box, with his body between Walker and the ball. Walker can’t touch him. Rosicky’s eyes dart to Lloris who is quickly out to meet him. The French stopper goes to ground, stretching his 6″2 frame and narrowing the angles. No matter. Rosicky lifts the ball delicately over the prostrate Lloris, sealing the win. It’s an important goal, something that Rosicky is in the habit of scoring, setting Arsenal on course for the club’s first major honours since 2005.
Two years later, on 30th January 2016, Arsenal are into the fourth round of the FA Cup. On the bench, having come back, once more, from another lengthy spell on the sidelines, Rosicky is brought on with twenty minutes left to play. Almost immediately, he starts to struggle with what will turn out to be a serious thigh injury. It is utterly tragic, after all the injuries, operations, treatment rooms, physiotherapy sessions, after it all. And yet he still puts in the hard yards, despite knowing, surely, that he is causing further damage. A ten-year servant of the club, both a gifted footballer and a hard worker, Rosicky should have been an Arsenal legend. And there he is, grimacing and limping around the pitch, all for the shirt. It is excruciating to watch. Even before the extent of the injury is recognised, I know that I am probably watching Rosicky’s last game in an Arsenal shirt. Today, I wonder if Rosicky knew too. Probably.
A fan of heavy metal, Tomáš Rosicky might have been an unlikely candidate for the moniker of Little Mozart. But then his was a career full of contradiction; a character of mental fortitude but physical frailty. He had almost everything you could want in a player: desire, heart, resilience, and commitment. It was only his body that let him down. “I’ve always come back from everything and I will come back again,” he said in the week following that game. “I will not give up. I will have the strength to make it, I will find it and I will be back again.” But for Arsenal at least, he did not come back.
Born in Prague in 1980, Rosicky grew up behind the iron curtain, spending his early years under Soviet occupation. Speaking to The Independent’s Sam Wallace, Rosicky recalled the time he spent under Communist rule: “In those days [in Prague] when you wanted to buy fruit, man, there was a long queue…sometimes, I got an apple, sometimes I got a banana. Things you take for granted now. When it [the revolution] happened you got more. It didn’t happen overnight, but suddenly our parents could get us more stuff like that. My mother was always looking at us getting vitamins and it was not always possible. Whatever they got they gave just to us.”
Still, Rosicky was given all the materials needed to become a professional athlete – namely exceptional genetics. His mother, Eva, was a top Czech table tennis player, while his father, Jiri, won several caps for Czechoslovakia himself and spent his career at Sparta Prague and Bohemia Prague. Tomáš’s brother, also named Jiri (who now acts as Tomáš’s agent), had a reasonable playing career, too. The story goes that it was Jiri junior, not Tomáš, who Sparta Prague wanted when the pair signed in 1989, but taking them both was a condition negotiated by their father.
Tomáš made his debut in the Czech league at just 17 and quickly became a regular for the first-team. That season, he won his first (of three) league titles with Sparta Prague. At 18, he was handed a Champions League debut, and at 19 earned a call-up to the national side – as well as winning Czech young player of the year. Goals against Arsenal and Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League alerted the rest of the world to the abilities of this prodigal Czech talent. In January 2001, Rosicky was sold to Borussia Dortmund for 25 million Deutsche Mark. It was a staggering sum at the time (and one that broke Bundesliga records), but reflected Rosicky’s status as one of the most promising young midfielders in Europe.
Tomáš Rosicky’s full debut season with BVB yielded yet another league title, and a UEFA Cup Final, which was lost 3-2 to Feyenoord. Rosicky was pulling in the individual accolades, too. He was voted Czech player of the year in 2001 and 2002 (and would win it again in 2006), as well as being announced the winner of the Czech Golden Ball award (similar to the Football Writers Awards) in 2002. The next few years, however, proved more difficult. Dortmund entered a period of decline and failed to qualify for the Champions League in 2004 – a season which Rosicky himself described as being his most difficult as a professional: “Borussia made me the whipping boy towards the end and I didn’t think that was fair.”
The move to Arsenal was announced in May 2006, early for Arsenal’s standards and a month before the World Cup. Tomáš Rosicky had scored 7 goals in 12 games during the qualification rounds and started the tournament on a similar note with two goals against the USA. If Arsenal fans had any doubts over the quality of the new acquisition, these were swiftly assuaged. The first, a vicious strike from distance, and the second, a delicate chip over the keeper showed the range of Rosicky’s attacking talents. He nearly had a hattrick, crashing another shot against the bar. Somewhat surprisingly, the Czech Republic failed to qualify from the group – losing their next two games 2-0 to Ghana and then Italy. Upon the retirement of Nedvěd in August, Rosicky was made the captain of the national team.
That summer was an eventful one for Arsenal. Wenger had embarked on the process of breaking up the Invincibles, and Ashley Cole, Robert Pirès, José Antonio Reyes, Sol Campbell and Dennis Bergkamp all left the club. William Gallas, Júlio Baptista and Rosicky were brought in. Although their styles were slightly different, Rosicky was ostensibly bought to replace Pirès – big boots to fill – who had demanded a transfer after being substituted early in the Champions League final. Rosicky was, of course, the typical second-era-Wenger signing: a technically gifted attacking midfielder, lightweight, positionally flexible but best when played in the middle. Nasri, Fabregas, Hleb, Arshavin all fit this profile and, like Rosicky, were all trying to fit into the same team at one point.
When players sign for Wenger and Arsenal, they often remark on the playing style as one of the attractions of the club. It’s become almost a rite of passage. Yet no player, to my memory, talked about it so frequently, or as believably, as Rosicky. Rosicky not only played in the Wenger style, he thought like him too. He believed the aesthetic of football to be almost as important as the result. “But Chelsea are boring,” he once remarked in an interview. “If you were going to choose whether to watch us or Chelsea I think you’d choose us. Everyone knows how Chelsea play. We want to play something else.”
There were times when Rosicky was on the pitch where it felt like he was a level above all around him. He’d turn defenders when they got too tight, drive past them when they dropped off, pick out raking cross fielders, or instigate snappy one-twos through the heart of a congested midfield. When the tempo of a game needed raising, he would be the one Wenger turned to, bursting forward in that slightly scampering, scuttling style – running as if he didn’t quite trust his muscles and fibres to hold together, never opening up into a full stride. He played with a full-blooded commitment that in such a small frame was exhilarating to watch. Despite his frailties, he’d regularly jump up after a strong 50-50 tackle, leaving far bigger men on the floor.
He didn’t score many for Arsenal, but the ones he did score, oh my. Powerful, dipping drives, delicate dinks, and a goal against Sunderland which must surely go down as one of the greatest Arsenal team goals ever scored; a whirlwind of one-touch passing finished in typical Rosicky fashion. If you want to know why Rosicky was known as Little Mozart, you just need to watch this goal.
It was after (another) FA Cup game that Wenger uttered the now famous phrase: “If you love football, you love Rosicky.” Rosicky had just put on an attacking masterclass, scoring one and assisting another. He had been constant movement all game and in typical Rosicky fashion hadn’t neglected his defensive duties either. Arsenal fans are quick to criticise Wenger for any number of things (some reasonable, others less so). The funny thing is that Rosicky, in many ways, was the personification of these criticisms – he was injury-prone, lightweight, and only really knew how to play one way. In fact, Rosicky revelled in only playing one way. It delighted him. And we loved him. How could you not? His love for the club was always obvious, his joy at playing football the right way was infectious.
Sadly, for all his talent, work rate and love for the club, Rosický simply wasn’t on the pitch enough to build a lasting legacy at Arsenal. That’s a painful sentence to write, but it has to be acknowledged. Over ten years, Rosický made 247 appearances. He spent 1322 days injured. He only made more than 20 league appearances in once. He missed two whole seasons through injury. In the end, Tomáš Rosický joins Arsenal’s legion of ‘what ifs’ – alongside the likes of Abou Diaby, Eduardo da Silva, and to a lesser extent Jack Wilshere. When Tomáš Rosický announced his retirement last week, he said he felt that his body was no longer able to keep up with the physical demands of football. The uncomfortable, tragic truth is that the body of this delightful footballer never could.