Following their pulsating 3-3 draw against West Ham, Arsenal’s title hopes seem all but mathematically expired for another year. Their long wait for a Premier League trophy will continue, as arguably their best chance in years now appears as much of a long-shot as a 38 game season from Jack Wilshere.
Critics of Arsene Wenger will no doubt be in full voice over the coming weeks and months, the failings of a such a great club once again laid squarely on his shoulders by many a Gooner. A failure to strengthen the squad in the right areas will likely be cited as a major reason for failure, as will poor team selection and tactics along the way.
The wonderfully entertaining Arsenal TV should be awash with dissenting voices calling for the manager’s head, his and the players’ inability to mount a genuine title-challenge merely compounded by the fact that it was probably their best chance in years. But, whatever your thoughts on the Frenchman, and he’s certainly a manager who divides opinion even amongst his own support base, the club’s failure to win the Premier League in the last 12 years cannot be all his fault… can it?
Sure, he has his shortcomings and, as a manager who controls everything at a club from top to bottom, he must take much of the blame. But the players and other staff all have to take on some of the burden, not least the medical staff. Because, for yet another season, Arsenal’s injury record has been amongst the worst in the league. High profile injuries seem to perforate life at the Emirates season after season, the long-term absence of key names year on year surely a huge contributing factor towards the lack of league success.
You only have to look at the two sides above them this season – Spurs and Leicester – for evidence as to how a fit squad, core group of players and relatively settled first XI have a supremely positive influence on performance. In fact, the Foxes have fielded the same starting team a total of 11 times this season, more than twice the amount of any rival. Similarly Spurs who, although they have shuffled the pack in line with demands of extra European matches, have managed to utilise players from a fairly small batch, any changes made generally in-line with tactics and mentality.
Why is it that Arsenal’s injury-record is so alarmingly prominent season after season? Consistent selection not only leads to familiarity amongst the players, but, as a result, consistent play and consistent tactics. This season, and for many previous, Wenger has had to juggle his squad of players, rarely willing, or able, to field the same starting XI on a consistent basis. It has had its benefits of course, the likes of Francis Coquelin, Alex Iwobi and Hector Bellerin all coming into the fold quicker than expected due to injuries elsewhere, but all performing well above expectations.
So in a perverse way in can benefit the side, but on the whole it is hugely detrimental to a team’s title chances. Chelsea’s success last season was built on consistent team selection, the squad kept largely injury-free by the fantastic medical team, giving Jose Mourinho the opportunity to pick the same players again and again, meaning, should any need to be brought in, they were ready both physically and mentally. In fact, if you think back to many of the Premier League champions over the years, a regular starting XI is very often apparent – any additional players used often brought in more through desire than necessity.
Maybe there is some luck to avoiding multiple injuries throughout a season, and maybe Arsenal just don’t have that luck. Who knows? But what we do know is that the Emirates seems to consistently have more key-players on its sidelines than any other ground in the Premier League. And with injury comes indecision and inconsistency. And with that comes… well, an Arsenal season.
When Arsenal inevitably fall short of expectations, the wrath and derision of the fans is almost always directed towards Wenger. Team selection, tactics and mentality are often cited, as too his dealings in the transfer market. But taking a closer look, we can actually pinpoint the catalogue of high-profile and often lengthy injuries that seem to blight the Gunners every year as a key factor in their knack of falling short of the mark.
If it’s the training methods that lead to the injuries then perhaps we can blame Wenger once more. But if its more than that, which seems likely, then the finger of blame must be pointed towards the raft of doctors and physios no doubt employed at the Emirates.
Where would they be had Santi Cazorla stayed fit beyond November? What if Jack Wilshere had played even just a handful of games this season? The dilemmas faced in team-selection, transfer targets and match day tactics forced upon Wenger over the years has led to Arsenal consistently falling short, with the manager often being criticised – but perhaps there are more factors at work here than just a stubborn Frenchman.