Is this an injury crisis?
By Tim Charlesworth
Based on the choices that Wenger has made over the last twelve months or so, his five top players for the right wing/right midfield position appear to be (in no particular order):
- Aaron Ramsey
- The Ox
- Jack Wilshere
- Danny Welbeck
- Theo Walcott
All of these players are now injured. This is certainly an injury crisis in this position, by any standards, and you could argue that Rosicky could play this position as well. But one position does not make an injury crisis.
Football is a squad game nowadays and the idea of a first eleven almost seems a bit outmoded in the days of 60 game seasons, rotation and much more frequent injuries. However, Wenger still seems to use the concept, and I don’t think the idea is quite dead yet. It seems to me that a clear first choice eleven has emerged, this season. It is roughly:
Bellerin BFG/Gabriel Koscielny Monreal
Le Coq Cazorla
Ramsey Ozil Sanchez
There are two major areas of uncertainty:
1: No9/CF: Walcott has recently edged Giroud for the starting position, but Giroud is fighting back impressively with good performances and goals from the bench. Giroud seemed to be first choice at the start of the season, then it looked like there was a bit of rotation, but Walcott seems to be preferred in recent games, starting against Man U, Watford and Bayern. I think Giroud may have been a bit unlucky. He seemed to lose his place after the (definitely unlucky) Dinamo red card. It almost looks as if Wenger was a bit angry with him for losing us that match. It didn’t help his cause when Walcott came on, looked good, and scored. Maybe Giroud got his place back on merit, after starting and scoring against Everton. Maybe it was just rotation. Either way, he will now get a run in the team following Walcott’s injury and it doesn’t look like Walcott will easily recover his status as preferred starter.
Giroud is a very big, strong player. I think he is particularly awkward for defenders to deal with when they are tired. Perhaps you could argue he is the ideal substitute, but you could make just as good an argument for Walcott – that his pace is hard to handle when defenders are tired. Perhaps tactical considerations have helped Walcott. His pace intimidates teams and makes them stand off. This is makes our opponents less effective in attack. This is useful at the start of a game, as it prevents the kind of bad starts hurt us so badly in the 13/14 season. Everton and Swansea looked a bit more comfortable with Walcott not playing, but Sanchez still provides some pace-based threat. Giroud provides a counter attacking outlet as well because he can hold the ball up and he can act as a pivot to the flying midfielders. They are such different players that it is very difficult to make a clear choice between them.
2: Centre back: The BFG and Gabriel are looking close. I am in the minority of fans who prefer Gabriel. They have hardly ever been simultaneously fit this season, so it is difficult to see which one Wenger prefers. Earlier in the season, it looked like the BFG was getting the nod over Gabriel, but Gabriel has played so well, that this is no longer clear. Both were available for the Olympiacos game, and Gabriel got the start, but this was a game where Wenger rotated, so it was not clear that Gabriel got the start on merit. Prior to that, we have to go back to PL game 2 on 16th August v Palace to find a game where both were available. Mertesacker started then, with Gabriel on the bench.
Much like Giroud and Walcott, they bring very different things to the team. The BFG brings calmness, leadership, ball control and height. Gabriel brings pace, athleticism and a fierce competitive passion. Perhaps Wenger will use tactical consideration to decide between the two, rather than have a clear first choice?
With both finally available again, I was really surprised that the BFG started against Swansea. The BFG played in midweek against Sheffield Wednesday. I had therefore assumed that Gabriel would play the Swansea match and the BFG would play at Bayern. I presume that the BFG will still play against Bayern, but if so, why didn’t Wenger start Gabriel against Wednesday?
If the BFG plays in Munich, that will be three matches in 8 days. Surely this was unnecessary, when Gabriel was available? The Bayern game will suit Mertesacker. We are likely to play deep and therefore won’t need too much centre half pace, but probably will need experience, presence and calmness under pressure.
So what is Wenger doing? I wonder if there is some rotation pattern involving the Tottenham match that I haven’t considered? Is there something we don’t know about Gabriel’s fitness following his mysterious absence for two matches following a ‘minor operation’? Is Wenger upset with Gabriel’s Chelsea dismissal, just as he seems to have been upset by Giroud’s Dinamo dismissal? Is it simply that Wenger values his BFG-skipper so highly that he can’t bear to bench him even against Sheffield Wednesday?
So, it may be that we really have thirteen players in our first choice eleven. The interesting thing about this first choice eleven is that it has been mostly available this season. Our major injuries, so far, have been to Welbeck, Rosicky and Wilshere, but it is not clear that any of those would be in the first choice eleven (Wilshere probably closest). They are mostly backup players, who haven’t really been needed because the players that they back up have mostly not been injured. So injuries have hardly disrupted our team at all. Perhaps the worst instance was the Liverpool game, when we lost both centre backs, but even then, Gabriel was very strong and the game seemed to do Chambers good.
If I could choose which of our players would get injured, I would tend to choose the centre forwards or centre backs, where the first choice is not that obvious anyway. And these are the positions in which we have seen the most injuries and suspensions, with Walcott, Giroud, the Boss, BFG and Gabriel all missing games – Cazorla was suspended for a CC match that he wouldn’t have played in anyway.
And then Ospina gets injured. He is also a backup player, but a politically difficult one. Wenger was under pressure to pick Cech for the Bayern game (it seems he may have promised Ospina that he would start CL games). And then the problem goes away – if Wenger could have picked one player to come back injured from the interlull, I am pretty sure it would be Ospina.
If I wasn’t allowed to choose CB/CF for an injury to our first eleven, I would choose Ramsey, as he is playing out of position, so is perhaps the weakest members of that team. And hey presto, Ramsey is injured. The situation has now deteriorated slightly with the injury to the Ox, but Campbell did well against Swansea, and we are still only denied our first choice player in one of eleven positions.
The players that are really difficult to replace (Ozil, Sanchez, Cazorla, Coquelin) have remained largely injury free. We lost Coquelin against Chelsea, but that match was already lost anyway with a referee determined to achieve a Chelsea win. Le Coq’s injury was brief. He also missed the Leicester game, but as we scored five, it didn’t really do us any harm. Ozil missed the Newcastle game, but this was a good game to miss as we played most of it against ten men and we managed a win without him.
So, by my reckoning, our good fortune with injuries continues. Of course, as the old saying goes, you make your own luck. Our squad is deeper with more good quality cover. In previous posts, I have suggested that our injury record seems to be finally improving following some developments at the club, not least of which is the acquisition of Shad Forsythe. Overall, our injuries are much better, in terms of numbers and severity, than in recent seasons. We have had a little blip now, and certainly the number of hamstring injuries is something that requires investigation. Even so, hamstring injuries are an occupational hazard for sprinters like Theo and the Ox for obvious physiological reasons, and we probably shouldn’t get too excited about them.
Perhaps we are due some good fortune after several years of injury misery. I will also whisper it, but teams that win leagues, tend to have reasonably good fortune with injuries. Its early days, but it looks good so far (I am clutching lucky rabbits feet encased in wood, with crossed fingers, as I type this). Certainly, by the standards of recent years, this is not an injury crisis.
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