Will injuries stand in the way of Arsenal’s first serious title tilt in a decade?

By Aditya Mehra

Courtesy gettyimages.

The 3-0 reverse to Sheffield Wednesday might have been a bitter pill to digest in light of a fantastic string of victories stretching back to the 3-0 humbling of United at the Emirates. The capitulation, Arsenal’s worst ever to a lower league side since 1959, was just the excuse critics needed to bring out their favourite argument about Arsenal’s inconsistencies and weak mentality. That argument isn’t completely applicable in light of the fact that as many as seven first team stars were rested and the League Cup features very low on Wenger’s plans. The big prize is the Premier League, and prior to the start of season it was seen as the best chance we had at lifting the title since the fabled Invincibles. Arsenal have shown signs of genuine quality with fantastic wins over United and Bayern when we played brilliantly, and grinding out results against Everton and Swansea when we were below par for most of the match.

The double injury blow to Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain suffered in the League Cup exit however, in addition to the previous injuries might yet derail Arsenal’s season. Arsenal have eight senior team stars on the bench now. Ramsey, Walcott and Chamberlain are out till possibly the international break in November. Wilshere, Rosicky, Welbeck and Ospina are out for the long term, and are not expected to return till January. Arsenal’s squad is being stretched dangerously thin.

Swansea did the double over Arsenal last season, and the pace of Walcott and the Ox would have been helpful against their possession based game. The first half was simply wretched for the Gunners, and had it not been for the heroics of Big Pete and Bellerin we would have been down and out by half-time. We were lucky to survive that, and we sealed the game in the second half with trademark brilliance from Oezil and Giroud and a trademark brainfart from Flappyhandski. Joel Campbell in particular got his first start for the team after having spent four years on the sidelines and capped it off with a brilliant goal. You could see how much it meant to him (and the team) in his celebration. He has seized his chance and was defensively solid. We might not have felt the impact of the injuries in this match but it is still a very precarious situation, with Giroud giving fans and Wenger a heart attack with an injury scare in the first half. If the worst had happened, we would only have starlet Alex Iwobi as an attacking option, and though he scored the winning goals against the Bayern youth team in the corresponding UEFA fixture, it would be too much to ask him to repeat his heroics against the senior team if called to action.

The Gunners are now joint top on points with City, and behind only on goal difference. This is definitely our best chance in years with Chelsea and Mourinho trying to compete with Aston Villa and Sunderland instead of City and Arsenal. Liverpool have started off well with Klopp but it is just too early to give them any real chance. They should try and get back into the CL by claiming the spot that should be left vacant by Chelsea. Fans are justifiably excited at the Gunner’s prospects but it is simply confounding that a team with the financial clout of Arsenal should be so fraught with injuries, most of which are seemingly preventable. Memories of things falling apart in recent years because of injuries are still fresh in the mind of the Arsenal faithful. The Gunners only recently added World Cup winning physio Shad Forsythe (ten years of experience with Joachim Loew’s Germany) and Barry Solan, another sports performance specialist, to their backroom staff. Aaron Ramsey limped off against Bayern and though many pundits point out that playing on Andorra’s artificial turf in an inconsequential Euro qualifier did both Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey in, the Gunners’ staff should really have taken more precaution. Even more stupefying is the manner in which Chamberlain came off just after 5 minutes against the Sheff Weds (presumably due to a lack of warming up), and his replacement Walcott had to be replaced himself in another 10 minutes. Most of us fans on the outside don’t seem to understand how these things can happen, for it is evident that these stars were operating in their red zone, and the backroom staff should definitely be aware of the condition of the players.

Next up is a mouth-watering clash against Bayern at the Allianz Arena, and Gunners might fancy their chances, but what about Wenger’s aim and strategy for this competition? While the Champions League scenario is not completely in the Gunner’s hands, I am sure the thought of possibly giving up on a competition which the team isn’t likely to win anyway in favour of blooding the youngsters/getting the reserves back in form and giving the team a fighting shot at the title back home has crossed Wenger’s mind. Arsenal usually pick up steam in January when the title is either already out of sight, or the scamper for the Top-4 spot ensues. They have done brilliantly to be only off the top on goal difference, and some decisions need to be taken to ensure that they stay at the top till May. It is unlikely that Wenger will dip into this purse in the January transfer window, with the impending returns of his first team stars.

Arsenal have to keep up this good work in the league for another 27 games. Manchester City look ominous with their bench strength, and the return of David Silva and Sergio Aguero in the next few weeks could make them unstoppable. Manchester United would definitely offer some competition as well. A slip-up might mean that keeping pace at the top could become a grueling task. The League Cup exit would have evinced a sigh of relief had it not been for the double injury blow, and the win at Swansea was definitely reassuring. Things are looking up and under control for now at the Emirates, and we can definitely look forward to a successful season. But there is a full-blown disaster just waiting to happen if any other star gets injured, because the backups either aren’t there, on the injury table or just not good enough. We need our injured players to get back and beef up (yeah, it’s fine to use the word right?) and do their bit if Arsenal are to be champions again.

Aditya Mehra is a second year student at the West Bengal National University for Juridical Sciences.

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