As any discerning Simpsons’ viewer knows, the Chinese use the same word for crisis as they do opportunity. Spoilsport linguists will tell you that this is actually an etymological fallacy, deliberately misused by western orators as a rhetorical coat peg upon which to hang spuriously optimistic piffle. *looks away and whistles*
I’m as worried and anxious and frustrated by Arsenal’s injury situation as everyone else. I’m as underwhelmed by our last two Premier League performances as anybody else too- not least because I believe these two things to be at least partially interlinked. Were this column a Monday feature, this week’s offering would have been somewhere between a peroration and a sigh of despair. Why do Arsenal suffer so many injuries to key players? What of our season prospects now? What’s Kim Kallstrom’s phone number?
The advantage of publishing on a Thursday is that it gives me enough distance from the weekend’s events to clear my head. I’m also thankful for the plagiaristic opportunities a Thursday column affords. I get to watch debate develop from the weekend’s events and absorb (steal) the best opinions from the Twitter coalface and chisel them into my own image. But sometimes, having a later slot in the week just allows me to see that which has already been written and spoken about many, many times already. I think perorations and injury theories have been done to death (or at least serious injury) by now.
There may well be some lessons for Arsene Wenger to learn during this period, particularly when it comes to fitness management. But there is little he can do about his current walking wounded, his job now is to find silver linings and alchemise them into solutions. “I define myself as an optimist. My constant battle in this job is to bring out the beauty in man,” he recently told L’Equipe. The current squad is going to need a whole lot of tiaras and a healthy dollop of Estee Lauder to find pageant winning beauty now.
If anything, it might be more of a Black & Decker job. Yet Wenger is no stranger to working within the confines of injury crises(!) This time last season, the Gunners were beset with injuries (it’s more remarkable when they’re not beset with injuries) and struggling for consistency. In Mesut Özil and Olivier Giroud, they were missing two of their most familiar and relied upon attacking forces. Ramsey was in and out of the side with muscular problems and Jack Wilshere’s ankle had once again been reduced to rubble thanks to Paddy McNair’s scythe. #Stop me, oh-oh-oh, stop me……..#
Fortunately for Arsenal, this season’s Premier League is missing a big bad wolf at its summit. Last year, Chelsea capitalised on everybody else’s bumbling incompetence. Mourinho’s men now find themselves wearing the dunce hat and nobody has stepped into their breach. The Gunners start to this season has not been an awful lot more convincing to their start to last season. Home wins over Bayern Munich and Manchester United gave cause for excitement. But now count the off colour performances. West Ham, Zagreb, Olympiacos, Bayern away, West Brom, Norwich. That’s quite a lot.
In recent seasons, Arsenal have pretty much always conformed to a Jekyll and Hyde formula. Half a season thrashing around in the dark like drunken grizzly bears and half a season of promising consistency. Only the running order changes in this repetitive script. Despite their proximity to the top of the table, this has actually been an inauspicious for Wenger’s side. It’s just that their competitors have been equally inauspicious. Of course, there is no guarantee that this formula will hold and that the team will magically find cohesion in the second half of the campaign in deference to some half imagined pattern.
Arsenal were able to forge a new balance last season with the scraps of first team squad that they had left. Francis Coquelin, Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal leapt into the void like dogs of war and made themselves indispensable foot soldiers. My main issue with Arsenal’s current slew of injuries is that it is difficult to see how the team can be balanced with the remaining options. As I wrote last week, a midfield featuring Ramsey, Flamini and Chamberlain lacks technical security. All are ‘front foot’ players.
You need players like that, but ideally, blended with teammates that can slow the game down as necessary too. With possession minded players like Arteta, Cazorla, Rosicky, Welbeck (though he lacks cutting edge, he rarely wastes a pass) and even Wilshere unavailable, it feels as though we’re just leaving a brick on the accelerator. Plenty of ebb but not much in the way of flow. However, the likes of Monreal, Bellerin and Coquelin did not become such vital components of the team just because they happened to balance it tactically; they created that balance with their performances and their form.
Coquelin and Cazorla was no overnight success as a pairing and as midfield partnerships go, that duo with Ramsey on the right did not leap out at you as a viable solution twelve months ago. Whilst it’s far too glib to say that the latest health crisis gives Arsenal opportunity, it certainly hands certain players an opportunity to become this season’s answer to Bellerin, Monreal or Coquelin. The fate of the Gunners’ season is dependent on the ability of those players to grasp it. (And to stay fit enough for long enough to take advantage too, I guess).
Aaron Ramsey has done a very good job of simultaneously balancing Arsenal’s midfield and forward line from the right side of midfield. Largely because he has the energy levels to play as a third central midfielder and support striker all at the same time. However, he has made no secret of the fact that he would prefer to play in central midfield. With Santi sidelined for three months, he’s going to get plenty of chance to display his credentials in his preferred position now. On the right, he was kind of a tactical counterweight for the likes of Özil, Cazorla and Alexis. Now, he has license to shift towards the centre of the stage, like a footballing Bernard Sumner.
Aaron might have to moderate his game slightly to make it work, especially if he is partnering Flamini as opposed to a more possession minded defensive midfielder like Arteta or possibly Chambers. Or else he is going to have to revive the scoring touch of 2013-14 and play so well that the team has to bend to his will and accommodate his strengths. Özil is afforded this privilege. The German’s desire to play in the centre as a roving number 10 does Ramsey and Cazorla’s personal ambitions little good; but Özil justifies this continued reconciliation with his end product. Likewise Alexis, his occasional profligacy in possession is more than smoothed over by his output.
As I have written elsewhere, the biggest victim of Alexis Sanchez is probably Alex Oxlade Chamberlain. He is a similar type of player to Alexis and Arsenal’s system can only really absorb one dribbler with a high risk / reward style in possession. In the same team as Alexis, Chamberlain is asked to trade in some of his best attributes in deference to the Chilean’s superior end product. But whilst Alexis is away, Chamberlain can play, in every sense of the word. He can be liberated by Sanchez’s absence and play more freely to his strengths.
For Ramsey and Chamberlain, the next few months present a big opportunity. Assuming he returns in a timely fashion, Jack Wilshere too. Either one of the right hand side or the centre of midfield will probably need someone with his qualities. Mathieu Flamini as well, he is in the last few months of his contract after all….If Danny Welbeck and Tomas Rosicky can return in the New Year, their freshness may prove useful to reinvigorate the squad. Özil and Giroud came back into the team bright eyed and bushy tailed in the second half of the 2014-15 campaign to great effect. In fact, maybe the likes of Wilshere, Welbeck and Rosicky will be like new sign……#Stop me if you think that you’ve, heard this one before…..#
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