This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.
It was a bitterly cold January evening at Anfield, and the atmosphere was fierce. Supporters huddled together for warmth, great clouds of condensation wreathing their faces as they sang. The wind was biting, gnawing its way through jackets, jumpers and football scarves. The match unfolding before them was classic winter fare; tense and scrappy, the players and irritable and stiff.
There was added tension in that this was a high-stakes knockout, and the biggest tie in the third round of the FA Cup. Arsenal were the visitors, Liverpool the cup holders, and one of them was about to crash out. With half-time fast approaching, the game looked to be heading to a cagey second half. Then, John Arne Riise was dispossessed out on the left flank. Six passes later, and Tomas Rosicky had scored a goal which left spectators rubbing their eyes.
Despite the fact that he'd only made his debut six months previous, this wasn't the first time that Rosicky had stunned a crowd in Arsenal colours. In September of that same season, he had scored a rocket of a goal against Hamburg in the Champions League, thumping a shot into the top corner from almost 30 yards. He went on to score another that night at Anfield, rifling low into the net and putting the visitors well on their way to a 3-1 win. When he wasn't scoring screamers from the midfield, he was living up to his reputation as 'the little Mozart'. When it came to the music of football, Rosicky was composer, conductor and master pianist all at once.
Having joined Arsenal from Borussia Dortmund, Rosicky brought some serious pedigree to the club. He had already won the Bundesliga with Dortmund and, that summer, had become a hero in his native Czech Republic after carrying the national team to the 2006 World Cup. It was his seven goals in 12 qualifying matches which caught the eye of Arsene Wenger, and convinced him to pursue a deal for the 25-year-old. Though Arsenal still had some true greats at this point – Ljungberg, Gilberto Silva and Thierry Henry – the squad had an air of faded grandeur about it, and was in desperate need of a player with Rosicky's flair, quality and individual class.
Rosicky would go on to make 37 appearances that season, becoming the beating heart of the squad. He struck up a fruitful partnership with Alex Hleb, which would continue the following season and propel the team to towards the top of the league. He continued his habit of scoring crucial goals, while his passing was crisp, instant and instinctive. He drove the team forward, gave them momentum, and stood out as a shining light in a seemingly resurgent Arsenal side. Then, in January 2008, he damaged his tendon, an injury from which he would not recover for a season and a half.
Fast forward to 2016, and Rosicky has said his final farewells to North London. A decade after he rocked up at The Emirates, he has returned to the Czech Republic and rejoined his hometown club of Sparta Prague. Now 35 years of age, his next two years with Sparta are likely to be his last as a professional footballer. When he looks back on his career as a player, he's bound to feel both a profound sense of pride and a quiet awareness of what might have been.
Though he couldn't have known it at the time, Rosicky joined an Arsenal side that were facing a long and arduous downward trajectory. Through no fault of his own, his arrival coincided with a barren era for the club. Having spent £390m on the building of The Emirates, Arsenal's finances were seriously restricted. This coincided with the arrival of limitless money in the Premier League, with the ascent of first Chelsea and then Manchester City to positions of power and wealth previously undreamt of. In was in that environment that, for the first time in decades, Arsenal lost their competitive edge.
Of the established stars that Rosicky linked up with when he first joined Arsenal, two would be gone the following year. Ljungberg and Henry departed to West Ham and Barcelona respectively, and so the 'Invincibles' side of 2003/04 was well and truly laid to rest. The season after that, Mathieu Flamini, Alex Hleb, Jens Lehmann and Gilberto Silva all left the club, with the departures of Flamini and Hleb of particular significance. Prior to that, Arsenal had held some measure of control over proceedings, but that double desertion marked the start of a swirling talent drain at the club.
In 2009, Arsenal lost Emmanuel Adebayor and Kolo Touré to a newly monied Manchester City. There was some brief respite the year after that, before 2011 saw Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri force moves, plunging the club into near-total crisis. The talent drain continued in 2012, and was only really stemmed with the signing of Mesut Ozil in 2013. In that time, Arsenal had gone from competing for each and every major honour to scraping a desperate fourth-place finish come the end of the season. The stands were full of angst and despair, both of which persist at the club to this day.
Chances are that Rosicky would have been one of the many players to depart the club, had he not succumbed to the same fate which has blighted so many Arsenal careers. Much like Abou Diaby and Robin van Persie, Rosicky simply could not stay fit. The damage to his tendon was extensive, and left him with a succession of niggling injuries in the aftermath. Much like Diaby, whose body never quite recovered from a horrendous ankle break, Rosicky struggled to physically re-adjust even after his initial injury had supposedly healed.
With his playing time limited from his second season onwards, Rosicky's personal trajectory seemed to mirror that of the club itself. Having arrived as a title winner and prodigious talent, his ability looked to be dwindling away. He had been an aesthetic marvel on the football pitch, a midfield orchestrator who could write a symphony with the ball at his feet. Soon enough, he was a man hobbled by a succession of hamstring tears and muscle tweaks, in the same way that Arsenal were a club hobbled by their finances and status as a 'selling club'.
Had things continued in that vein, Rosicky's would have been a tragic tale. Instead, he underwent a late revival. Just as the club was regaining its former impetus, Rosicky managed to find a run of form. In the same season that Arsenal signed Mesut Ozil, their other midfield maestro made 39 appearances, and seemed to rediscover some of the sublime talents he had before.
No longer expected to be the main man in the midfield, Rosicky gained a certain foxy cunning, a vulpine wiliness which allowed him to operate between the lines. In an Arsenal team that too often found itself passing aimlessly around the centre circle, Rosicky was a crucial accompaniment, a man capable of building to a crescendo in front of goal. Like Mozart in his last few years, Rosicky was hugely productive, and did some of his very best work. He scuttled and scurried, darted and dashed, making acres space for his teammates to play in. He was the conductor, and the midfield thrived at his instruction once more.
On top of all that, Rosicky never forgot how to score a screamer. His thunderous strike at White Hart Lane will never be forgotten, through it was arguably inferior in quality to the gorgeous chip he scored against Spurs in the FA Cup two months before. Come the end of the 2013/14 season, he had won his first piece of silverware with Arsenal. He had begun their triumphant cup run, and finished it with a winners' medal and an open-top bus tour.
Having added another FA Cup win to his accomplishments, as well as a Community Shield, Rosicky's last few years in North London saw silverware return to the club once more. Though his final campaign was a quiet one – unsurprisingly, really, for a player in his mid thirties – his legacy at Arsenal is meaningful, and his time in England ultimately worthwhile. Though he had to suffer for his art, Rosicky achieved something in spite of his many reversals and setbacks. Much like the man who inspired his nickname, we'll appreciate 'the little Mozart' long after he's gone.