Friday, May 24, 2024

Demands

Good morning.

A quick Friday morning blog for you. Mikel Arteta will meet the press this afternoon, and I’m sure that the fitness of Bukayo Saka will be top of the agenda. Whether we get more than ‘We will assess him later’ from the manager remains to be seen. It’d be unusual for him to show his hand, especially given Sunday’s opposition, so unless there’s something that he just can’t hide, expect to remain on tenterhooks regarding his availability all weekend.

Meanwhile, Saka has been named in the England squad for the upcoming Interlull. Whether that’s a positive sign or not, I can’t say at this point. All it means to me is that Arsenal haven’t categorically ruled him out, and while that could well be because he has a chance of playing, it might also be because Arteta is insistent giving nothing away at this stage.

Gareth Southgate said:

I can only go via what Mikel has said about the last few games. He is in contention for the weekend so we’ve obviously got a very important qualifier. We look after the players as well as any country.

There are certain key games where, if it’s possible to have your best players, then you do want to have them. So we’ve got that responsibility of qualifying for the country but, I’ve been a player. I’ve never ever taken a risk on a player’s physical well-being. And nor would I.

England play a friendly against Australia on Friday 13th, before a European qualifier against Italy on the 17th. While that game is obviously an important one, England sit top of the group with 13 points to Italy’s 7 – although Italy do have a game in hand. Let’s see what transpires, but it’s not as if England don’t have good options at their disposal.

The question of how much players like Saka are asked to play is a constant, and there’s a good piece in The Athletic from Oliver Kay (£) which touches on this subject. The demands grow and grow, and the impact on some players is obvious. We worry about Bukayo playing a lot because we fear burn-out, but we also worry because players like Oleksandr Zinchenko, Kieran Tierney or Thomas Partey can’t without some kind of injury. Their bodies can’t cope.

Last season Saka played 3744 minutes for Arsenal. A lot, no question. He was just ahead of Aaron Ramsdale, then Ben White – but of course the latter doesn’t have international football to worry about because of his ongoing omission from the England squad. Interestingly though, you never hear anyone say ‘You know what, we’ve got to rest Gabriel Magalhaes’, and last season he played 4133 minutes for the club. Again though, he didn’t have internationals and travel to contend with.

The worry that some of the best young talent in the world play too much is an understandable one, but I also think there’s no straight line between that and how a player’s career can pan out. I think it really depends on the individual. I went back to have a look at Lionel Messi when he was the same age as Saka, and in the 2010/11 season when he’d have been 23, he played 4579 minutes for Barcelona in all competitions, plus 984 minutes of international football where the majority of those came in friendlies.

Before anyone jumps on the contention that I am comparing Saka and Messi as players, that’s not what I’m doing. I think he’s just a decent analogue in terms of a player whose talent is so obvious that his importance to the team basically demands his selection for every game. Are we not there with Saka? We have other good players, but he is a very significant part of what makes this Arsenal team as good as it is. A player who can, in different ways to Messi obviously, be the difference maker. It’s his quality that drives his inclusion, and its his quality that makes it difficult to find the right kind of back-up/competition. Not quite a vicious circle, because there are ways to build a squad better able to cope with his absence, but not far off it.

I also think there’s another key factor here in that managers and players don’t spend their time fretting about injury as much as fans do. To them it is part and parcel of the job – and while management is about making decisions which are for the benefit of players and the team, the next game is almost always the most immediate concern. The external demands for long-term thinking as well short-term results are more or less at odds with each other, hence we see stuff that doesn’t seem to make sense via that longer lens.

Which is to say, I still have no idea if Saka will be available for the weekend. I stand by what I said yesterday, if there’s risk of aggravating an injury then I hope we’re sensible because we need Saka from October to May, not just this game. But then I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see his name when the team is announced on Sunday afternoon.

Anyway, we’ll talk more about Arteta’s press conference and the Man City game in our preview podcast on Patreon later this afternoon. For some extra reading this morning, here’s Tim on Raya/Ramsdale in his latest column.

For now, have a good one.

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