It is easy for a team to simply put poor form down to an injury crisis. It has been a long-standing excuse at the Arsenal to put our failures down to our excessive injuries. Personally, I attribute the collapse of the 2009/2010 season to the injuries of Robin van Persie, William Gallas, Thomas Vermaelen, Johan Djourou, Aaron Ramsey, Andrey Arshavin and especially Cesc Fabregas - who was beyond world class that season - as we approached the long-prophesied ’easy run-in’. And last season, as we all know, the Carling Cup final débacle was the catalyst for a collapse of mythical proportions, though I am of the opinion that with Cesc and Theo Walcott fit to play, we would have walked our way to victory; and perhaps would have ground it out had van Persie not had to go injured. Some may not share those opinions, but that is my personal view.
But there is no hope of rectifying that which went wrong over those season; they are confined to the past and remain as mere excuses. Perennial ‘what ifs’ and ‘if onlys’; but this season we are not in a title fight, we are fighting for fourth again, though our push is being hampered by injuries once again. After three losses in a row, some (idiots) are turning on Arsene Wenger and though he has made his mistakes, it is worth noting how hamstrung he is by the injuries to the squad.
For starters, there is the much mentioned dearth of full backs. No Bakari Sagna, no Carl Jenkinson, no Kieran Gibbs (shocker) and no André Santos since early December. No right backs since late October - at first, Laurent Koscielny filled in there, as Per Mertesacker and Thomas Vermaelen played at centre half and Andre Santos at left back. Not ideal, but what else can you do when both your right backs have injuries? Then, with Kieran Gibbs predictably injured with a raft of strange and unusual injuries, Andre Santos gets injured. Enter the four centre back back four. Vermaelen has played left back many times in his career and though it is far from ideal to have your best centre back out-of-position, desperate times call for desperate measures. As long as we can keep these players fit for a month or two, until at least one of the full backs returns. Then Djourou picks up a knock midway through a game. Ignasi Miquel, 18 year old centre half, is thrown into the mix as a left back, as Koscielny moved back to right back and Vermaelen in-field. The inexperienced Miquel is caught out of position at we go down 1-0 at Eastlands. The next game, Aston Villa away, we send Francis Coquelin out at right back - not his natural position, but he does have some previous experience of the role - he performs well, a fine solution until Djourou is back.
Next, Vermaen picks up a calf strain and is ruled out for 2-3 weeks. Now Coquelin must fill in at left back against Fulham. In the same game, Djourou picks up a red card at Fulham and is banned. Such was the desperation for defenders, Sebastien Squillaci was called upon. The game was promptly lost. Squillaci would have to play in the FA Cup game against Leeds at centre back, with Coquelin at right back and Miquel on the left. Then, half an hour into the cup clash, Coquelin limps of and joins Vermaelem on the ‘out for 2-3 weeks’ list. 18-year old Nico Yennaris is introduced to the fray for his first professional game. With Coquelin now injured, it was fortunate that Djourou was back for the game against Swansea. But the two fullbacks’ instincts to wander inside was exploited readily by Nathan Dyer and Scott Sinclair. Another loss due to the lack of natural fullbacks. Next up were Manchester United. Vermaelen was rushed back, Djourou remained at right back. The first goal came from Djourou being roasted (one of many times) by Nani, who sent a cross over to Antonio Valenicia who in turn exploited Vermaelen’s poor positioning and headed home. Djourou was reported to get a knock at half time and was replaced by Yennaris. A risky move, but a successful one, as the young Chinese-Cypriot handled the immense challenge of Nani well. In the space of one month, Arsenal were forced to use their seventh choice left back (Miquel) and sixth choice Yennaris on more than one occasion each, such were the magnitude of the injuries; so plentiful were they that we had to play Squillaci!
That ridiculously unfortunate set of events will hamper any team, but the injuries did not stop here. Oh no. At the very start of the season, we were told that Jack Wilshere would be out for a week or two with a slight ankle problem. A week became a month. One month became three, until all of a sudden he was ruled out until February. So we were to going to have to survive 5 months without our best midfielder, following Cesc’s departure. So on the long-term absentee list, we have Bakari Sagna, Kieran Gibbs, Andre Santos, Carl Jenkinson, Jack Wilshere and for intermittent spells, Thomas Vermaelen. Meanwhile, Abou Diaby had ankle surgery in the summer and was unavailable for the first three months of the season. Though after just 25 minutes against Fulham, he was ruled out indefinitely, with a hamstring injury and no return date mentioned (and rumours abound that he may be forced to retire). Not conducive to success.
Going into the game against Swansea, Mikel Arteta is ruled out, while Gervinho and Marouane Chamakh are off to the Africa Cup of Nations, taking the number of absentees to 12 (Fabianski, Sagna, Jenkinson, Santos, Gibbs, Vermaelen, Wilshere, Arteta, Diaby, Coquelin, Gervinho and Chamakh). Following the 3-2 loss in South Wales, Vermaelen returned (perhaps earlier than was helpful to his recovery) but Thierry Henry picked up a calf injury. Meaning there were still 12 absentees as we went to face United.
To put those absentees into context, the equivalent injury crisis at Chelsea would see Ashley Cole, Jose Bosingwa, Branislav Ivanovic, Paulo Ferreira, Juan Mata and Oriol Romeu out for the majority of the season, while John Terry would have spent spells on the sidelines. To compare to the number of injuries we had against United, they would have had no: Henrique Hilario, the aforementioned six long-term players, Ramires, Daniel Sturridge, Didier Drogba and Saloman Kalou (rough comparisons). A side whose depletion does not bare thinking about.
Or for high-flying Sp*rs, the equivalent long-term six would be Benoit Assou-Ekotto, Kyle Walker, Younes Kaboul, Michael Dawson, Sandro and Luka Modric, with Ledley King often missing. While their equivalent to the injured 12 would be: Carlo Cudicini, those six, Rafael van der Vaart, Sebastien Bassong, Aaron Lennon, Jermain Defoe and Roman Pavlyuchenko. A larger squad than Chelsea’s but one which would still be badly damaged by all those missing.
And one last comparison: Manchester City. Perhaps the strongest squad in the league, but they would be hurt with no Gael Clichy, Aleksandr Kolarov, Micah Richards, Pablo Zabaleta, Nigel de Jong and David Silva for much of the season, with Joleon Lescott out for parts of the season (a better comparison to Vermaelen as he would be . As well as them, no Pantimilon, Yaya Toure, Adam Johnson, Samir Nasri and Owen Hargreaves.
All very rough comparisons but I tried to compare the players’ positions and importance to their teams to those of the missing players at Arsenal. It is vague but it hammers home the point that our injury list is horrendous, as has been our luck. At this point it is very necessary to give a lot of credit to Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United, who have had similar problems but have done magnificently well in spite of them (their Champions League fate notwithstanding). This has been a ramble, but I felt it necessary to emphasise just how unfortunate we have been and are. We have done very well to be as high as we have been but now, as those players start to return, we must capitalise. If we keep winning games, we will get into the top four and with a full team, there are not many who can match us. Certainly not the other top four challengers. This is not to say this is the sole reason for our recent bad patch, but it is worth taking into consideration.
And what treatment would those teams get from the media if they were in the same position? More sympathy, at the very least. And we have been lucky in one regard - Robin van Persie has remained injury free, and let’s pray that doesn’t change!
Apologies for the rambling.