After seeing Manchester City held by Aston Villa just minutes before they took to the pitch at the Emirates, Arsenal had the chance to go top of the Premier League table. It’s just that standing in their way was their arch rivals and neighbours Tottenham.
Arsenal teams of the past 11 years or so, spooked by the dizzy heights of the top of the table, may have been simply unable to capitalise on the opportunity. The mental side of the game has frequently been lacking for Arsene Wenger’s team over the past few years.
This time, even though they didn’t manage to capitalise fully on City’s slip, Arsenal’s mentality wasn’t their problem. In fact, the North London derby actually showed their mental state in a much better light. No, this time Arsenal were undone by a different illness that has plagued the Gunners over the past decade or so – injuries.
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Frankly, Spurs should have won the derby. They outplayed Arsenal for 75 minutes but never managed to get out of sight. So when Arsenal came back into the game, it will be their fans making the case that they should have won the game given all the late pressure the Gunners had.
The mentality of the Arsenal side allowed them to keep themselves in the game in order to give themselves a fighting chance later on.
It was also doubly impressive to come back from such a drubbing in Munich just days earlier before doing that. So the mental side of the game is something that Arsenal are much better equipped to deal with this season.
Yet what Arsene Wenger hasn’t equipped his side with is the means to withstand injury crises.
It’s become a cliche to write that Arsenal are the only team in Europe’s top five leagues not to have signed an outfield player in the summer. But because of the injuries suffered to Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere, Arsenal are looking very depleted in attacking midfield. And if Francis Coquelin were to get injured, just how bad would things look in Arsenal’s defensive midfield area?
It’s one thing to believe in your squad and want to be loyal to the players who are working hard and getting better as a team. But it’s quite another thing to not sign any backup players on the basis of this. Maybe Wenger doesn’t want to rock the boat and make some of his regular starters think they have extra competition for their places, but without replacements there’s nowhere to hide whenever injuries start to pile up.
Just like Manuel Pellegrini at Manchester City, Wenger has had a lot of injuries to deal with in concentrated areas of his squad, and that makes it hard for him.
If Wenger had lost, say, Koscielny to a long term instead of Ramsey it would still have been a big blow, but not quite as bad. Koscielny is clearly an important defender for Arsenal, but with Mertesacker, Gabriel and Calum Chambers all available, they have cover.
When it’s a player who usually plays on the wing, he’s just added to the list. Walcott can play there, but he’s gone. Oxlade-Chamberlain and Danny Welbeck are long-term absentees, too.
Wenger should have added more to the squad, but the extent of the injury crisis is huge. Just bad luck. Yet it happens every year, and still Wenger didn’t go out and buy in the summer. And having to bring on Kieran Gibbs and Mathieu Flamini when you’re chasing a crucial goal just shows the desperation in the Arsenal side.
Even if they turned out to be inspired subs, it does show the lack of options Wenger has. But it also shows the fight and desire in the team when the sub full-back comes on and scores the equaliser and nearly nets the winner.
So it’s not the mental side that is problematic for Arsenal for the first time in a long time. Now it’s the personnel. It’s just one problem after another for Wenger, and immediately after he solved a big one. Surely if he had added an extra player or two to his squad in the summer they’d be top of the table by now?