It remains the utopian ideal in football, a familiar aspiration but one which is never achieved. The mantra of “When everyone is fit” is being trotted out by friend and foe in support of arguments about squad strengths, as if it is something unique to Arsène Wenger’s reign. A pity people forget it’s the same things discussed by generations of football supporters before us in bars around the globe, before the invention of the internet.
In those days, fewer substitutes relieved one headache; managers rarely struggled to find someone for the bench and if it wasn’t an attacker ready to change the game, it generally signalled that there was a concern about a particular player. Either that or the individual who sat waiting for his chance for most of the match, was cursed by ‘versatility’.
The squad system has changed things now, a balance struck between youth and experience to keep players who aren’t in the 18-man matchday chorus, happy. But like the first cuckoo of spring, the ‘transfer talk’ segments are re-appearing on national media websites around the globe. We’re being readied for the post-Christmas sales. Don’t get too close to the front of the queue; they are the people who end up flat on their faces on the floor, trampled by everyone else getting the bargains.
Arsène has to be looking for a centre back, he knows and has admitted it; Laurent Koscielny’s injury woes demand it. Will that hunt expand into the midfield? Some will bury their heads in the sand at this point. Fundamental – we’ll call them philosophical – differences have emerged over a defensive midfielders. Those with nostrils filled with grains are telling us it isn’t necessary, Flamini is doing a splendid job of covering for Mikel Arteta’s absence. Almost that there is no-one better.
And in any case, how do you fit someone in? Who drops out?
They’ve been dropping like flies so far this season. Arteta is also of a footballing age where the twilight of his career is upon us. Yes, he has signed a new deal, extending his stay most likely until his retirement in 2016 but that struck me as much as ensuring that Arsène only needs to buy one holding player before then rather than signalling any intent of ignoring the requirement. A title challenge won’t emerge without investing in this area of the pitch; the back four requires vigorous protection.
In the attacking third, Arsenal are fine. They will be even better with Mesut Özil’s return. Talk of returning players slowing down play misses one point. The XI when the likes of Wilshere returns doesn’t automatically have a place for them and the playing style by that point will be so ingrained, it’s up to them to adapt on their return.
Özil tempered any talk of his return in an interview on the official website, noting his is not yet back in training with the squad. Giroud seemed to just whizz through that part of his return but that had, I think, as much to do with the nature of his injury as his recuperative powers. Özil needs to be handled more carefully.
I don’t buy into him having a negative impact on the team through slowing play down. It’s easy to point fingers, to make a scapegoat of an individual but in the German’s case, his transfer fee and reputation brought expectations that for some – most? – have yet to be fully realised. Until that happens, the sniping will continue. You’ll be told that it’s down to your acronym; it isn’t, football supporters have been like that for generations.
Nothing, beyond the money, is new in today’s football, certainly not where supporters and their behaviours are concerned; don’t be told it is. It might be to the person making the statement but it isn’t.
That is certainly true of how we treat our heroes – and I use the royal ‘we’ in that sense. Bedroom walls might not be covered in as many posters but phones, tablets and computers are. Players come and go, latched onto and dispensed with an ease we all remember. The winter will bring new heroes to new clubs, to new supporters. Expectations remain the same, rising and falling as the leaves on the trees change colour. There will always be those who are as readily criticised as forgiven.
The only change we want, now matter how sanguine or lugubrious your outlook, is an Arsenal squad which has returned to challenging for silverware on a regular basis.