I’ll start today by pointing you in the direction of this excellent piece by Tim over at 7am Kickoff, investigating the availability of our top players over their Arsenal careers. It is a top piece of analysis, and does go to show just how badly we’ve missed certain players, over a considerable timeframe. A few pertinent quotes from the article:
“Since [Euro 2008] Cesc has only played in 66% of Arsenal’s League games (69 games) and has tallied 43 games for Spain.”
That is a quite staggering statistic – the third season since is about to end and Cesc has only averaged 23 Premiership games in that time. But equally surprising is the fixture overload he has faced playing for Spain. Remember – Cesc is just 23 years old. Can anyone say burnout?
“Even if you throw out the first 19 game season where he signed for Arsenal from Soton and then didn’t play Walcott only averages 21 League games a season for Arsenal. Moreover, his games are split fairly evenly between starts (56) and subs (49)”
Walcott has developed into one of our most critical players, not only for his ability to terrify defences but because we are actually a squad lacking in pace. Yet since he broke into the first team he is averaging a little over one game in two.
The article is deep, detailing the robust and the injury prone in great detail. I strongly advise you read the whole piece – it is a fascinating insight into how inconsistent many of our squad’s availability is.
It is something I’ve been thinking about for a while – why do we get so many injuries? Time and time again it is put down to bad luck, but for how long can you have bad luck before you start to suspect there is more to it?
One thing you cannot legislate for is the impact injuries that seem to hamper certain players. No matter how well conditioned individuals are, you cannot account for an ankle breaking tackle, Van Persie injuring his knee in a collision whilst scoring, Djourou ripping his shoulder out in another coming together, and so on. Those sort of injuries, sadly, cannot reasonably be prevented. They come about by a combination of increased speed of play, and bad luck.
Beyond that, however, I don’t believe it to be a coincidence that we pick up more than our fair share of injuries, particularly that we get them in batches. The reason is simple – our style of play stretches bodies to the limit.
We play at perhaps the highest tempo in the Premiership (certainly when the lazier ones are sitting on the bench) – at our best we attack at speed, press with intensity, and run our socks off for ninety minutes. I have no doubt the players are supremely fit, but that kind of approach takes you to the maximum every time, and risks the tipping point into strains, pulls and tears.
The snowball effect of injuries is easily explained. We have a big squad, and when all fit they can be actively rotated, allowing sufficient recovery time between matches, and reducing the risk of muscular problems. But as soon as a few players go down with impact injuries, others in their position have to play every match, in every competition, for ninety minutes each time. When they succumb to a tweaked hamstring, we bemoan our bad fortune, but I’m not convinced that it is a coincidence at all.
Some would argue that Barcelona play with even more intensity than us without picking up the same number of injuries, and they have a point. But it is a misleading argument – Barca do not take their domestic cup competitions as seriously as we do (imagine if all our top players had been rested for all recent cup games – do you think we’d have as many knocks?), but perhaps more importantly, the vast majority of their games are over as a contest by the hour mark, allowing them to ease to victory for the final thirty minutes, the period in which so many problems can occur as bodies begin to tire and muscles tighten.
For us, however, there are no easy games, and the snowball effect has taken force. In a matter of weeks, we’ve gone from an almost fully fit squad (Vermaelen aside), to a team missing half their first choice players. The understudies are now being asked to pick up the slack.
Were we still in the FA Cup and Champions League, we would be facing a fixture pile up, and it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if the squad continued to be decimated. As it is, we have only one midweek game between now and the end of the season, so each of our players will be able to put in a full shift at the weekend and rest themselves properly for the next game. I’m not trying to spin the cup exits as a good thing – clearly they are not – but it has a silver lining from a fitness point of view. Frankly, with our squad beginning to strain and break, had we continued to attack on all fronts we would have been highly unlikely to win anything at all. We still may not, but injuries are less likely to be an applicable excuse if we fail.
It isn’t just us that suffers in this way, even though it sometimes feels like we bear the brunt. United are finally feeling the pinch of multiple cup competitions – a number of their players are now breaking down with muscular pulls and strains. It is an inevitability of a long hard season, especially once the squad shrinks in availability. Three injuries can easily lead to ten because of the pressure it puts on those that remain.
So how do we counter it? Well, to a point, Wenger has attempted to do the most important thing which is build a big squad. Rotation is essential with our style of play if we are to avoid our players accelerating and pulling up on a regular basis. It is why I have no qualms with his FA Cup approach against the lesser lights – much as many bemoan him making so many changes, he really has no choice. We play in a far more competitive league than Barcelona, and playing ninety minutes in our style Sunday-Wednesday-Saturday makes breakdowns an inevitability.
A few more players would certainly help, but it is a catch 22 position – if the squad increases in size, you can rotate more, and therefore you will pick up less injuries. The flip side is that you then have a greater number of players who believe they should be playing, which becomes a different sort of management headache.
Aside from that, we could do with killing games earlier on. One of the strengths of the Invincibles was the ability to go two goals up within the first 25 minutes – it happened time and time again. Perhaps we did not appreciate the value of that at the time – it allowed the stars to take the end of the game at a slower pace, winding down and putting their bodies under less pressure.
Nowadays, it is a rare thing to see our matches end as a contest before the final ten minutes. Admittedly, that isn’t entirely our fault – defences have certainly improved over the last five years – but I sometimes feel we can come out of the blocks far quicker than we do. Better to attack with speed early on and then ease off, rather than trying to push the pace as your body begins to tire.
If we want our seasons to stop collapsing in March, if we want to ability to be in the latter stages of cup competitions without destroying our league hopes, something has to change. More than signings, contract negotiations and retaining stars, figuring out how to keep a fit squad until May is perhaps Wenger’s biggest challenge of the summer.