It’s never too early to be optimistic. After all, a big-money transfer can win you the league title 10-months early, and a relatively inexperienced manager can get you relegated even before a ball is kicked. But what can we expect from Arsenal this season after four league games? Importantly, how much of the club’s final outcome will be dictated by the dreaded injury plague that hits the team every season?
The big season for Arsenal since the move into the Emirates Stadium was 2007/08. After the departure of Thierry Henry, it was predicted that Arsene Wenger’s side would fail to land a top four spot and struggle throughout the campaign. All very familiar stuff. But that team, built around a fantastic midfield quartet of Cesc Fabregas, Tomas Rosicky, Alex Hleb, and Mathieu Flamini, stormed through the first half of the season and only picked up their first away loss in December during an away trip to Middlesbrough. It was a side that were getting points off the big teams, convincingly dispatching problematic smaller clubs (barring the early home defeat to West Ham), while also making an incredible impression in European competition. The result at the San Siro against AC Milan really sent shockwaves across Europe, not only because of the final score, but due to the manner in which Arsenal outplayed a hugely experienced Milan side.
Naturally, it all came to an end because of injuries to key players. Two new signings in Bacary Sagna and Eduardo had their seasons cut short, while Robin van Persie picked up his annual season-ending injury after what seemed like only a handful of games. Mathieu Flamini was lost before the season’s end, as was Rosicky. The team’s final league position of finishing only four points behind champions Manchester United should have been a good indication of just how much that team could have achieved had they all stayed fit.
This year for Arsenal, however, is slightly different. All of those notable names have long since departed, while the team now has to find another identity with a host a exciting new arrivals. But is the threat of serious injury the only thing holding Arsenal back from title glory?
Arsene Wenger has never had a weaker side than what he put forward last season. Was that entirely accurate, or was it because all the focus was placed at the foot of van Persie? Mikel Arteta has proven to be an exceptional buy for the club, and the defence currently looks stronger than in any previous season while at Ashburton Grove.
The problem is, football sometimes isn’t as black and white as simply blaming injuries for poor results. The club as a whole have had all sense of winning stripped away, a procedure that started with the loss of Patrick Vieira in 2005 and continued each year until there was nothing left of the former title-winning side. Arsenal have bought former champions and winners at international level, but how much does that help to reshape the mentality of a club who have been disappointed for the best part of a decade?
Winning will breed further success, and what better way to begin than by starting small and working your way up. The Carling Cup should have been the start for this Arsenal team under Wenger, but that injury bug hit once more. Cesc Fabregas was ruled out of the final in 2011 following an injury in the previous game at home to Stoke, and naturally van Persie was substituted out of the final through an injury of his own. Would Arsenal have won that tie with their best players fully fit for the entire game?
This year, a lot of hope has been put on players like Abou Diaby and Mikel Arteta. Without Alex Song or any obvious replacement, there is a great deal of emphasis on those two midfielders to perform and help carry the team forward. Diaby was outstanding at Anfield, but was it something more than just a bright spot in another dark and disappointing season for the player? Both Diaby and Arteta have their injury concerns, but their staying fit for the majority of the season could be the difference between another throwaway season and a great step forward.
Arsenal fans will be dreading any major knock to players like Santi Cazorla, Lukas Podolski and, of course, the key figures in the defensive line. Supporters have seen where the club goes when the injury bug hits, but for once it would be great to see how much potential is in this Arsenal squad if they all stay healthy for the full season.
Maybe Wenger’s training methods need to be questioned, and the club’s medial team might also need a looking at. Concentration among the squad while on the pitch looks to be addressed, or at the very least it’s moving in the right direction through the introduction of Steve Bould. But many have said it before, this Arsenal team has the ability to beat any team in the Premier League. Unfortunately, they also have the potential to lose to any team in the Premier League. It may only have been Southampton, but a fully fit Arsenal side were devastating in their 6-1 win at the Emirates. For any other team, that would be described as the form of champions.