I’m afraid it is an injury crisis now

Tim Charlesworth


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:

  1. 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)
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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.
  3. Wenger is a managerial genius (although experience suggests that his genius may be slightly lacking when it comes to DM solutions)
  4. Where there is Mesut, there is hope


19 Replies to “I’m afraid it is an injury crisis now”

  1. How frustrating is it once again not to strengthen in an area where we were weak!? AW should have got rid of Arteta & Flamini and brought in a genuine contender for DMF with Coq.
    I feel like its groundhog day for our season every November! Is our training ground built on an ancient indian burial ground?

  2. Excellent piece, Tim.

    I would like to add one bit about a player that is rarely mentioned and which absence has gone under the radar.

    I’m talking about Danny Welbeck.

    He is a player that we have missed a lot in the last seven months. He can play either as a central striker or on either wing. Whilst his conversion rate (he needed eleven shots for a goal last season) and link-up play are nowhere near Giroud’s, Welbeck can be a strong counter-attacking option and put a strong pressure on the opponents’ back-line with his blistering pace. Welbeck is one of the reasons why I believe that – with all our best players fit and in form – Arsenal are the only opponents Barcelona and Bayern should be afraid of. With Welbeck in the team we would relieve the pressure on our back-line (which is especially important if that back-line includes Mertesacker) and on our central midfield axis. You want to play a high-pressing game against us, Bayern/Barcelona? Fine but tell me first how do you think Boateng/Pique will deal with that big and quick striker who can leave them behind in a second.

    I must admit I’m not very into that axis Wilshere-Ramsey though. If Wilshere adds defensive discipline in his game, it would be a perfect solution but until then…

  3. Jim, good afternoon. How are you? You aren’t wrong with those your assessments on the Gunners current injuries crisis and the inadequate available cover in the DM position in the squad.

    The high point in your article that such of has likely exposed Arsenal at the holding role position now is the 3 months sidelined of le Coq. And the stats you’ve revealed on Flamini DM weakness at the Gunners base is staggering. But Flamini weakness didn’t show yesternight as he held fort successfully against the troublesomes Zagreb. But one may argue that it’s just 1 match show. In any case, I think Flamini will do a good holding job for Arsenal before le Coq returns.

    I think Flamini too will need a cover to cover him or even surpassed him in the art of DM job. And that brings to my mind, what Mathieu Debuchy? I think He has temporarily played on 1 or 2 occasions for Arsenal at CB. And I should believe if he can play at CB successful, he should be abled to play at DM efficiently too. Let the Boss explore that possibility for a likely successful possible option. Thanks.

  4. Le Coq out for 3 months is a massive blow but I think we can cope, our defense and wingers will need to work much harder. I think the biggest problem we would have is if either Ozil or Sanchez is out injured for long periods, that I worry more than Le Coq as they are two of our prominent play makers.

  5. We should try to train Joel in the DM role. He can shield and keep the ball well, is strong, but his passing needs a little more work.
    It’s worth a try at least, as i think he could grow into the role, especially as Ramsey and Ox will be returning.

  6. Interesting article. I am very disappointed with the piling injuries especially the lack of replacements. The manager must take full responsibility. He resisted calls to get a decent defensive midfielder as back up for Coquelin. He also resited calls to get another striker. It seems as if he was keeping his fingers crossed that the team would go the whole season without a major injury in those areas. Now he will have to be creative with what he has. Flamini is the best bet, but he too has become prone to niggling injuries. If he can stay fit for a few games and get into his rythm he will be very useful. A three seasons ago Arteta got injured against Wigan and we had to go to Newcastle needing a win. We started with Arteta but he lasted less than ten minutes. Wenger introduced Oxlade and he did a decent job. So he is another option. However, the problem is that we are not looking for a short term solution. Coquelin is likey to be out for at least three months according to Wenger and maybe even more. We really must consider buying, and starting negotiations now so that the target can join in early January. A few seasons ago we had injuries to Gibbs, Santos, Jenkinson and Sagna at the same time. We avoided buying in January and it cost us enormously. Two season ago when we were top of the log we did not add a striker to back up Giroud and only added an injured Kalstrom. At the point Ramsey was firing in the goals and he too got injured. Last season we resisted acquiring a back up at Centre back after Vermalean’s departure, and the defensive instability hurt us badly. I do not want to sound pessimistic but I fear that the season may begin to unravel for Arsenal now. These are my reasons:
    1. The teams have figured out how to neutralize Carzola’s influence from deep. Did you see how Bayern, Spurs and West Brom closed him done quickly whenever he touched the ball? 2.Physically imposing and more organized midfields will fancy their chances of overrunning the Arsenal midfield.3. Wenger does not rotate that much when all players are fit. We can expect a few more short term injuries in key positions. 4. Games are coming thick and fast and there isn’t time for anyone other than Flamini to bed into the DM position.
    Having said that Wenger sometimes surprises. In 2005-2006 season injuries to Cole and Clichy saw the emergency of Flamini at left back. Injuries at right back also saw the conversion of Eboue who was then a midfielder/winger to right back and it also worked. And of course last season saw the emergence of Coquelin. And let us be honest-before the Man City game Coquelin had just been average. One or two confidence boosting games can transform a player. I also thought that Coquelin and Chambers had a decent game together in midfield at Southampton.So Chambers and Flamini may just see us through this period.
    These are tough times indeed.

  7. Tim – I think you underrate Flamini. He has rarely let us down and I am quite comfortable with him in that role although acknowledge Coquelin is better.

    I also think you are harsh on Arteta – particularly as you make the point of reserve players getting rusty in respect to Debuchy. Arteta has hardly played for a year so completely unreasonable to expect him to be up to speed immediately. Having said that he is 34 (whereas Flamini is 31 – big difference).

    I rate Hayden, but concerned that he is getting little game-time at Hull.

  8. Winner:

    1. Why should the manager take “full responsibility” for Coquelin’s injury and lack of cover? There IS cover! See above. And can he really be directly blamed for Coquelin’s injury.

    2. Why buy blindly? No one knows which area of the squad will be hit. All the abuse last year was around lack of defensive cover. But there wasn’t much of a problem, notwithstanding a few weeks of Monreal playing centre back (very competently). A lot of players are coming back pretty soon – even Wilshere, Rosicky and Welbeck.

    Current injuries:

    GK: None
    DF: None
    MF: Wilshere, Arteta, Ox, Coquelin, Rosicky (and Ramsey only just back so not a full pelt yet).
    FW: Walcott, Welbeck.

    3. His name is spelt Cazorla.

    4. The games are not coming particularly thick and fast:

    5 days to Norwich
    6 days to Sunderland
    4 days to Olympiakos
    4 days to Villa
    8 days to Man City
    5 days to Southampton

    only then does it start to get bad. But hopefully the situation will ease by then: one month away. Arteta, Ox and Walcott should all be back. Maybe even Wilshere. Which just leaves 3 to return – and all of them should be back by end Feb I think. It is likely that we will incur more injuries by then – but can not predict who and which positions!

  9. OT: We are wearing the horrible 3rd kit on Sunday. Why? On the other hand, the referee is Moss who I believe we have a 100% record under (please correct me if I’m wrong!).

  10. Lee we are going round in circles. Coquelin is now rated as one of the best DMs in Europe. So who at that sort of level will come in and sit in the reserves in the vague hope that he might get a game if Frankie gets injured again?

  11. Bearing in mind how often Gibbs is used from the bench when we try to shore up our defence to protect a slender lead, is it possible that with his athleticism along with his experience of defence and attack that he would be worth a try as DM if we cannot find a suitable replacement for Le Coq in the immediate short term? Another to think about would be Gabriel, strong in the tackle, reasonably fast, outstanding in the air and big enough not to be shoved around by some of the rugby players in the Premier.

  12. Really good article,Tim.

    I’m right with you on this one. Couldn’t get my head around us not signing another dm having seen the outstanding evidence of what a player like Coquelin did for us.

    As I sought mitigation for it before the start of the year, all I came up with was (a) we did/do have a lot of quality midfielders, and so (cough) if everyone had stayed fit, there would have been problems keeping everyone happy, and (b) we don’t know what deals were pursued in the summer.

    All the same, I believed that the way to look at it was: who is the player whose absence would hurt us most from an otherwise full squad, and whereas my answer for years had been Koscielny, by the summer it was Coquelin.

    Until Christmas presumably it’s down to Flamini or Ramsay in there. Flamini is the closest in type to Coquelin, but, while a good squad man, he isn’t as good a player and surely wouldn’t be able to play a lot of games on the bounce.

    Ramsay’s an even better player than Coquelin, but surely not as good a defensive midfielder. He might be our best bet, if he is willing to radically change his game and concentrate almost exclusively on protecting the defence (saw him do that for a half for Wales when they beat Belgium 1-0).

    I believe you are totally right in saying Wilshere when playing deep for England was more of a playmaker, with a role very similar to Santi’s (of the last year). Seem to remember him always playing with two other central midfielders with good energy, legs and tenacity (Henderson, milner, Delph).

    That for me is utterly crucial. In the same way Pirlo was able to remain a great player from deep with the likes of Vidal, Pogba and Marchisio. While perhaps the best our own midfield looked in recent years until Coquelin’s emergence was the brief period Arteta, Cazorla and, ach, Diaby lined up together.

    Balance is everything for me in midfield. Doesn’t matter what set of attributes one player has so long as the combined set of attributes leaves you well set for all aspects of the game.

    As I say, an unknown could explain it all (we might have tried very hard to bring in another specialist defensive midfielder, or someone who isn’t that, but has the potential to become it, or is so formidable physically as to blur the lines and do the work of a dm while being much more. Rare beasts them, and we of course had the king of them for many years), but my guess would be it was more a matter of numbers, i.e all the good midfielders we have and how bringing in another one would make it impossible to give everyone enough playing time to keep them happy.

    The case was even more compelling for me because you’d have to think an already crazy market will become completely insane once the new tv deal kicks in.

    Anyway, doesn’t matter now. The disaster, for me, of Coquelin being out has occurred and I have to hope I am throughly mistaken about what effect that will have.

  13. Kosielny for centre mid , good reader of the game, technically sound, good passer, good in the air ,good anticipation, has speed…what more do u want …bring in Gabriel to play alongside mert, perfect…

  14. injuries are a worry. We seem to get a lot, and many of them are serious. The cause/causes have been debated here, elsewhere, and no doubt at the club…..hard training pitches seem to be the medias theory of choice at the moment.the club have bought in top staff, which seemed to work for a while, but we are where we are.
    Yes, Coq is a loss, but worth trusting Wenger here. I am sure, contrary to the media that like to portray him badly, that a man as meticulous as Wenger has considered this and other scenarios. As mentioned, Jack, if he can stay fit, is a slightly different option. Just because Chambers was not exactly stellar in this role at Southampton, doesnt mean he has not been educated to it during the last year. Flamini has done well when I have seen him so why write him off.
    The names mentioned…Bender, Gustavo etc would all need time to adjust to this team, and perhaps this country/language. Maybe, in-house solutions could get up to speed better than some of the CMFs out there…even if they were available? All imponderables for Mr Wenger to ponder, but whatever he does, I am sure he will do it for some very good reasons of which we know very little.
    In the mean time, lets hope Flamini gets a new lease of life in the Autumn of his career…maybe even Arteta as well? Lers see what Chambers, Jack, Campbell or for all I know, Debuchy can do in that sort of role. Remember Coq and Bellerin, there may be others just waiting their chance, if so, they are at one of the best clubs to get it

  15. There is another option, one which btw we used in the past. Bring in a loanee with a decent profile. It’s true that this is an area which needs lubrication for the mechanism to work properly, but it’s not impossible, and doesn’t have the disadvantages of an outright buying.

  16. @Pete,
    I agree with you entirely about Flamini’s contribution in the absence of Coquelin, who was not missed last night.
    His reading of the game, coupled with his vast experience, more than compensates for the age gap……provided, of course, his legs hold up! 😉

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