Arsenal’s season sits on the brink of collapse. If, as expected, Manchester City win at St James Park this afternoon, they will slump to third and with both their title rivals in sparkling form, there is no coming back for the north Londoners even with a victory in their Monday night clash at Villa Park.
Such is the hysteria surrounding reporting of Arsenal, it will be no surprise if someone has taken that tack in this morning’s papers or web. Chelsea’s win at Hull was no surprise, Newcastle succumbing to the blue side of Manchester won’t be either. The vagaries of the fixture list, we are still more than thirty-six hours from kick-off in the West Midlands. I know, I know, you’re scratching your head, working out how long it took to write today’s post. The only pitiful excuse I can offer is that it has taken more caffeine than usual to get this far. The omens aren’t good.
Such is the power wielded by television companies that it is rare for the contenders to play at the same time on any weekend. Does that pressure intensify knowing that you must win to return to the top of the table, that defeat could allow the beginnings of a gap to open. Or is it worse to cross the line, knowing that victory is a must and then spend the whole of the weekend wondering what impact any failure will have? The pressure of winning is supposed to be such a simple thing.
Arsène noted some time ago that there is some disadvantage in playing last, knowing what you must achieve. Whatever the situation it is pressurised and the players are well enough remunerated to deal with it. There is a big advantage, almost unspoken at times. The advantage in recovery times being extended, having fresher players. In current circumstances, that is the preferable position to be in.
A number of the players returning will have benefited from extra time on the training pitch to work on their match fitness. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain may have a long-term future in the central midfield role according to his manager but I should imagine his most immediate concern is returning to first team action. With Theo Walcott’s injury, it seems likely that he will feature heavily on the right flank but having versatility to play anywhere across the midfield has its advantages, particularly in a heavily congested midfield such as the one at Arsenal. Despite the plethora of options, transfer gossip this morning has focussed on the creative types with Maxim Gonalons once more linked and Saul Niguez of Rayo Vallecano – OK, Atletico de Madrid but he’s on loan – a Spanish Under-21 international. That’s as well as Bender, Draxler and Harry Potter, who’s apparently a bit of a wing wizard.
Arsène saw a long-term future at international level for Oxlade-Chamberlain,
Alex has a good opportunity for England now. He will be in Hodgson’s plans anyway because he can play central and wide and on that front England don’t have too many like that. He scored that goal against Brazil and had a big impact in that game, especially in central midfield. His future will be there in central midfield, in a deeper role, because he has a good long ball and penetration from deep.
I trust the comparison to Gerrard made later refers to on the pitch activities with the Liverpool captain hardly a role model off it. The manager raises a good point, one which offers an intriguing prospect at The Emirates in the future with a triumvirate completed by Ramsey and Wilshere. That is before any additions and there are plenty of recommendations for that floating around. It used to be that versatility was a poisoned chalice, a stumbling block for a career. The circle has been completed with such attributes that being sought after, freeing up space in squads for more niche, specialist roles such as centre forwards. Gah, I knew I could get that in somewhere, even in a piece on midfield roles.
Ox certainly has the range of passing and in future may develop into the all-encompassing role. For the moment, the immediate challenge has to be winning his place back in the side. Walcott’s absence will help but he is by no means assured of being Wenger’s preferred wide choice with both Gnabry and Wilshere filling that role well this season. It is the sort of selection headache the manager will relish even if he would prefer to add Theo Walcott into the mix as well. For years there has been a theory abounding that having this much talent would lead to an exodus as players tired of fighting for their places, demanding first XI football to further their personal ambitions at club and international level.
With the level of injuries suffered this season, that fear seems misplaced. Most players who have been fit will play substantial number of matches this season and with the club trying to compete on all fronts, there is an acceptance that this is the nature of the modern game. Contracts have been worth less than the paper they were written on in the past and to prevent that nightmare scenario recurring, competing for trophies is what needs to happen in the future. Winning trophies as well but in theory, the more often you compete, the more often you will win. It would be nice to put that theory to the test again.