In the last few weeks, I have been desperately trying to persuade myself that we are not in an injury crisis. A genuine injury crisis is the sort of thing that destroys title challenges. A few minor muscular injuries are not a disaster. Over a season, you are bound to get a little collection of these happening simultaneously and we are currently going through just such a period.
In the days of multi-millionaire footballers, few (if any) clubs can afford to carry a large stock of ‘just in case’ players. Even if you do, Mathieu Debuchy has suggested to us, that such players will ‘rust’ on the sidelines. When you dust them off and throw them into the fray, you may just find that they aren’t as good as they were when you put the dust covers on.
Every team is vulnerable to the loss of key players. Man City are vulnerable to the loss of Kompany and Aguero. Chelsea are vulnerable to the loss of Courtois, Terry, and Hazard (in some cases a loss of form seems to be sufficient). We have suffered crippling injury crises in both of the last two seasons (and indeed a number before that). Chelsea were lucky with injuries last season. A club challenging for the title simply cannot afford long absences from major players.
Not all injuries are the same
You cannot expect to go through a season without injuries, so you should always be cautious about drawing conclusions from a single incident. When injuries happen, you hope that they are short-term injuries or that they affect less important players. The importance of the player is not just a function of how good they are, but also a function of how good their replacements are. So injuries to Mertesacker or Monreal are not a disaster, because their backups (Gabriel and Gibbs) are of high quality. But injuries to Coquelin and Ozil are a problem because their replacements will lead to a significant drop in the overall quality of the team.
I am still clinging to the hope that our current run of injuries is just a bit of a blip and that there has been a genuine improvement in our strength and conditioning work. Unfortunately, the evidence is beginning to pile up that I am wrong about this. We suffered in the last few games before the last interlull. Although the injuries were minor, and to replaceable players, the sheer number of injuries was taking its toll. We lost the ability to rotate, and started to look tired. Against Spurs in particular, we suffered by having no credible options on the bench.
Up until Saturday, we have mostly had short-term injuries to major players (Ozil, Coquelin, Walcott), and longer-term injuries to less critical players (Welbeck, Wilshere, Rosicky). But there is no hiding from the fact that the serious knee injury that Coquelin has picked up is a major blow. Wenger says he will be out for at least two months, and this may mean three in Wengerspeak. So it looks like we will have to get half way through February before we get our destroyer back.
It has been clear right from the start that we were heavily reliant on Coquelin staying fit. This situation has been exacerbated as Arteta’s poor form and injury woes continue. It was always debateable whether Arteta was really a good backup for Coquelin, and the gap in quality between them has looked wider and wider as the season has gone on.
We played (90% of) a game without Le Coq on Saturday, and we really suffered for it. In fact, we suffer whenever we try to play without Coquelin, and it looks like we are going to have to do quite a lot of it. If we are to maintain any sort of title challenge, Wenger is going to have to try to find a solution to a big problem in the DM position. His options seem to be:
- Can Flamini surprise us all? He is the most similar player to Coquelin in the squad. Unfortunately he is slower, less agile, less powerful, less fit, older, weaker in the air, and less skilful than Coquelin. Apart from that he is fine! (he is a better shouter than Le Coq)
- Can Arteta do the job – he has looked like a player in terminal decline this season. I am really sad about this as he was a stalwart in the difficult years, and has been a real lion for us. His injury will presumably keep him out for half the time that Coquelin is out anyway, so he will be of limited replacement value even if he can turn his form around.
- Can Chambers perform in the DM role? – seems unlikely. Wenger hasn’t even tried him in this role for nearly 12 months. He has only had one, horrible, match at DM for Arsenal (Southampton, away, last season). He was so bad that he inspired Szchezny to take up smoking immediately! For the sake of all involved, he has not played in midfield again since. It would be surprising if he was the answer now.
- Will we buy someone in January? This is not likely to be a good solution. It is six weeks until the window opens. Deals are rarely done at the start of the window. Even if we were lucky enough to get a good player, Coquelin will be nearly ready by the end of January, and may even be back. Other clubs might try to hold Wenger to ransom, and he nearly always backs out in such circumstances. On the other hand, Wenger may decide that due to the decline of Arteta, he needs better back up even when Coquelin returns. If so, this is more likely to pay dividends next season than this.
- Can Wilshere cover the DM role? This is possible. He doesn’t quite have Coquelin’s physical strength and certainly not his aerial ability. He has sort of played DM for England, but he is really more of a deep lying playmaker (like Cazorla) than a defensive rock (like le Coq) when he plays this role. He is also still a few weeks away from a return.
- Can Bielik play DM – I doubt it. He has no pedigree or experience at this level. He is young, and I understand that he has been playing at CB for the junior teams. It would be wonderful if he could surprise us all, but I am not optimistic. Remember our greatest DM of recent times, Coquelin, was useless at Bielik’s age.
- Can Ramsay do it? This is not impossible. He is probably the most physically powerful of the options. He is naturally a much more attacking player, but maybe he could adapt for a short period.
Cazorla is also part of the problem here. He is a wonderful player and is brilliant in his new position, but he is not physically powerful. In order for our midfield partnership to work, you need to pair him with a physically imposing player, otherwise we start to suffer from the old problem of looking ‘powderpuff in the middle’. I hate to think of the idea of dropping the little genius, but perhaps the answer here is not to replace Coquelin, but to replace the Coq-Caz partnership. Wilshere-Ramsay is the most credible alternative, but is Wilshere still too far away from fitness to make this one viable?
This is my worst nightmare
This type of major injury to le Coq is the one injury that I was really scared of, and now it has happened. The alternatives listed above look really weak. I’m sorry to be so pessimistic and I really hope I am wrong, but I think that this is a massive blow to our season, against which the defeat to West Brom is but a minor irritation.
The problem with Coquelin is:
- For years we looked desperate for a player like him, and never found one, until he emerged triumphant from the wilds of Charlton, around January of this year.
- Sometimes the coincidence of a players presence and the team’s form can be pure fluke (e.g. the Tots never win when Bale is playing). However, those of us who have watched Arsenal over the last year are in little doubt about the causal link between Coquelin’s presence on the field and the tightening of our midfield, defence and physical presence.
- We massively improved when he started playing regularly, and it is reasonable to presume that we will decline without him.
Looking on the bright side
So its all doom and gloom. In the name of balance, I have tried to think of some positive points:
- In an 11-man team and c 26 man squad can the loss of one player for 1/3 of a season really be that disastrous?
- I reckon that our game point average has increased by about 0.2 to 0.3 points per game since Coquelin has come into the team. So, if he misses 10 games, that is a loss of 2-3 points. That is not decisive in a title chase.
- Wenger is a managerial genius (although experience suggests that his genius may be slightly lacking when it comes to DM solutions)
- Where there is Mesut, there is hope