Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Load management

Morning all.

The players will return to London, if they haven’t already, to be assessed ahead of our game against Everton on Sunday. From what we can see on a surface level, there don’t appear to be any injury concerns based on anything that happened during the Interlull.

Gabriel looked like he’d picked up something in Brazil’s first game, but played 90 minutes of their second. Beyond that, there’s a line from a piece by Sami Mokbel in the Mail which suggests that Bukayo Saka’s absence from England’s friendly against Scotland was in part due to an ongoing Achilles niggle he’s been suffering since last season.

When he arrived for international duty, Gareth Southgate said the 22 year old missing a couple of training sessions (alongside two other players) was down to ‘load management’. Which suggests contact with the Arsenal medical team, and a decision based on that for the good of the player. Did he have to come on in a nothing game against Scotland? That’s a different question all right.

I’ve seen a lot of discussion of Saka this season, and I think it’s fair to say that he hasn’t been at his absolute best. In isolation, you could begin to worry about that a bit, but then the team itself isn’t quite firing on all cylinders yet. I think there’s a relation there. The thing about Saka is, even when he isn’t 100%, he’s so good he gives you end product. Some players need to be fully fit and fully confident to provide goals and assists; Saka has two goals and an assist in four Premier League games. He is capable of producing moments, like the one against Nottingham Forest, where it’s like he has a video game style burst of quality – it’s almost like a super power. Few players have that.

The bigger question about how much he plays is another interesting one. Recently he broke the club’s record for most consecutive starts, and it’s first and foremost down to his importance to the team because of how good he is, but it’s also a demonstration of his mentality. He gets kicked around, he gets back up, he gets kicked again, he gets back up – he will not be intimated off the pitch by anyone. He wants to play the next game, and the next game etc, and like every player at this level, there isn’t really any such thing as 100% fit. They always have some pain somewhere. Aaron Ramsdale played a chunk of last season with a broken finger.

The flip side is finding the right balance. Of course young players want to play, and we’ve seen in the past great talent suffer because they didn’t pay enough attention to what their body was telling them. You never want to lose your place, so you play when you shouldn’t. What I would hope is that there is a culture of openness and honesty at Arsenal right now, so a player can tell his manager when something isn’t right. When it’s too sore or uncomfortable. Let common sense dictate policy, because missing a player for three or four games is bit of a blow, missing them for three or four months can be a disaster.

I know Mikel Arteta has spoken before about the demands on players, the need to play at a high level every three or four days, and that is the reality of football. The best players play almost all the time, and not only is Saka one of our best players, he’s steadily becoming one of the best players in the world. Whether that makes decision making around him different, I don’t know, but you would hope that with all the information available to medical staff and the manager, the risk of playing versus not playing is taken into account when the team is picked each week.

One of consequences of having a great player who has absolutely nailed down a position, is that it can be difficult to find ‘back up’. There was a lot of talk about signing a player to provide cover for Saka this summer, but which player who is good enough to be close to his level is going to sign to play second fiddle most of the season? And if you have someone willing to do that, they’re probably not the character you need in your squad anyway. There are some internal solutions, Gabriel Jesus has played out there in his career; Fabio Vieira, Emile Smith Rowe and Reiss Nelson have also featured in that position, but you can understand why Arteta might not be fully on-board with picking them ahead of Saka. It is a tough one, especially when the demand to win games is so high.

Anyway, let’s hope it’s just the kind of thing a player has to deal with throughout the season, although the unpredictability of the Achilles would make me a little nervous. When it comes to Sunday though, a team with Saka in it would make me feel much more confident about ending that Everton away hoodoo.

I’m gonna leave it there now. We have new Waffle for you on Patreon. Back tomorrow with more, and a brand new Arsecast.

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