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'Spending five years alone was very depressing' - Denilson's discreet rise and fall at Arsenal

6:00 PM EST 1/2/20
Denilson Arsenal
The Brazilian came out of nowhere to play regularly for the Gunners a decade ago, but he was unable to kick on and is now struggling to play at all

"He's a little bit in between Tomas Rosicky and Gilberto."

That's how Arsene Wenger described a young Brazilian by the name of Denilson when Arsenal took a gamble on the unknown 18-year-old in 2006. 

After just a handful of appearances for Serie A side Sao Paulo, the midfielder had managed to attract the attention of the Frenchman, who saw something special in a skinny teenager who had survived growing up in violent neighbourhood.

"I saw a lot going on, just running into the house. Even at curfew, there was a lot of gunfire," Denilson told in 2011. "I have many childhood friends. Some have died for making the wrong choices."

Denilson's obsession with football steered him in the right direction, though.

Even in Brazil, though, Denilson was still a relative unknown at the time of his move to England.

"We all thought it a bit strange when he went to Arsenal," former Brazil striker Tostao told The Guardian.

"He had played only a few times for his club. He was discreet, he never stood out.

"I only saw him a couple of times – he was basically a reserve."

Despite those unremarkable beginnings, Denilson made a promising start to his Arsenal career.

He featured 19 times during his debut campaign, starting three Premier League games, as well as the Gunners' Champions League last-16 second leg against PSV, in which he registered an assist in a 1-1 draw. 

Unsurprisingly, Denilson struggled to comprehend his rapid ascent to first-team football on such a big stage. 

"I thought I'd be on the bench for a few seasons adapting," he admitted at the time. "Every day I'm working to show my potential."

Dispelling any fears of him being a one-season wonder, the midfielder played even more frequently across the club's 2007-08 campaign, making 23 appearances, and even scoring twice in the EFL Cup. 

Things got even better for Denilson the following season as he locked down his place in Arsene Wenger's side, playing 51 games across all competitions, netting three goals and contributing eight assists in the process. 

Even Wenger was blown away by how well Denilson had adapted to the English game.

“I am surprised by two things – by how well he has done and how little credit he gets from the media," Wenger said in 2009. 

“I don’t think many people have gone down and deeply analysed his game. But he is a player who doesn’t attract too much limelight because he is discreet, doesn’t talk and does his job. That’s what I prefer.

“He’s a very hungry player and he is 20 years old, plays every game under a lot of pressure and I have never seen him in one training session be a little bit within himself. He always gives you 100 per cent.”

Injuries and the emergence of Jack Wilshere limited Denilson's game time during the 2009-10 season but he still struck five goals and added three assists across 28 appearances. 

He actually secured slightly more game time the following year but Denilson had already made up his mind to leave. What he described as "the worst season" of his life only increased his desire to depart, given he was no longer happy in London.

"Spending five years alone was very depressing," he told after joining Sao Paulo on loan in 2011. "You see 90,000 fans cheering you on a game and when it's over you have no one to talk to.

"People are very cold in England. I lived in a condominium and didn't even know my neighbours. They didn't even say hi to me.

"I am shy, but I like a good chat with friends. Here, after a game, I gather my family and friends in a steak house and we talk. For me, the best thing about coming back to Brazil is being home again."

Denilson's return to Brazil didn't start off well, as he was sent off twice in his first month back with Sao Paulo. Despite those initial bumps, though, the club would make his move back to Brazil permanent in 2013 as Arsenal terminated Denilson's contract by mutual consent. 

Though playing regularly in Serie A, the midfielder was lured to the Middle East just two years later as he signed for UAE outfit Al-Wahda. ​Denilson lasted just one season in the heat of Abu Dhabi, however, as he returned to Brazil on loan with Cruzeiro. 

After playing just 98 minutes for the club, he was let go, with a subsequent knee operation seeing Al-Wahda completely cut their ties with him in 2017.

More surgeries would follow over the next two years as the former Arsenal starlet spent two seasons on the sidelines without a club. 

At the start of 2019, Denilson signed for second-division Brazilian club Botafogo but after just one substitute appearance he was released due to fitness issues. 

He has failed to re-emerge since and, at just 31 years of age, he's now left to reflect on what was an extraordinary yet discreet rise and fall at one England's biggest clubs.