Sunday arrives with Arsenal seeking to return to the top of the Premier League for twenty-four hours or more. With City and Chelsea meeting at Stamford Bridge, a home win is essential to capitalise on either or both dropping points. It is tempting to launch into an analysis of the what-ifs of the various permutations tomorrow but Arsenal need to win today to make it worthwhile and in any case, that is all that matters; everything else is out of their hands.
A point at Southampton ought to be considered a good result but has the hallmarks of the opposite, no matter how Arsène might wish to dress it. The doubts emerge, I think, because of the poor first-half performance. A convincing win today would offer a better perspective on midweek and a welcome distraction to the circus which is beginning to develop around the club. Having almost weathered the storm over the January transfer window and with people getting used to the idea that Kim Kallstrom wasn’t the 16-year-old Championship Manager prodigy but an adult almost twice that age, the last thing Arsenal wanted was news of a new injury breaking.
Except it wasn’t a new injury to the club, only us as supporters; Arsenal knew all about it when they signed Kim Kallstrom. There was a good reason why his back problem was not made public knowledge at the time of ink drying on paper, the reaction to Swedish news reports suggesting a three-month absence completely ignored the fact that the player remains at the club. Most loan deals have clauses which cancel the agreement in the event of serious injury; a three-month recovery period would have triggered exactly that. Within minutes, the injury was downgraded to missing six games meaning the Swede will be available in early to mid-March. Around a fortnight before Aaron Ramsey. That is the same Aaron Ramsey whose injury necessitated the club scrambling around at the last-minute in the transfer window.
Kallstrom’s injury is baffling. The injury isn’t because they happen all the time but under those circumstances, signing a player who will miss one-third of his loan spell certainly is. There are only two plausible explanations; the club were desperate and / or Arsène did not think the injury as serious as he was being told. With Flamini absent for three games, he took a risk and with the information becoming public knowledge, the PR element is lost. More important for him is the rest of the season and with a minimum of eighteen games left, Kallstrom will be available for around a dozen. However, there is a second strand of risk: injury to currently fit players and that is where Wenger’s decision to sign the midfielder is bemusing. He needed cover now and finds himself trying to cover the cover. Utterly bizarre and entirely avoidable.
The roots of the problem lay not in this transfer window but six months ago. Signing Mesut Özil proved entirely worthwhile and by all accounts it was not a deal which the club stumbled into, planned with early contact with Madrid. But the overriding perception of the summer was not of a coherent transfer strategy and Arsenal’s needs now are no different to then; we still wince when Olivier Giroud hits the turf and the midfield still needs cover, as it did then. It is naïve to think the club will spend £40m each transfer window but it is not naïve to think they should have dealt earlier instead of waiting for the mythical deal which never comes. January’s trend was to leave transfer business until late and Arsenal are not alone in following that. However, in doing so they are exposed to higher prices – selling clubs know the game; they are playing it themselves. More importantly, it leaves options limited if deals fall through or problems emerge. You sense Arsène had nowhere left to turn to strengthen his squad and had little or nothing to lose by progressing with the Kallstrom deal; better someone for later than none at all.
More on the injury will be known later today as the manager faces the media ahead of the match against Crystal Palace. Yes, it is easy to forget that there is ninety minutes of football today.
Having dropped two points in midweek, Arsenal need a win and a good performance. Nothing wrong in taking a point or three when playing badly, winning ugly is part of football. A good performance ahead of testing fixtures does wonders for confidence and this is a squad which should be brimming with belief. Even when they struggle to muster a meaningful shot on target in forty-five minutes, they have the ability to turn a deficit into a lead. As the manager pointed out afterwards, the disappointment at St Mary’s was in conceding so quickly after Cazorla had struck. It was defensive slackness to which we have become unaccustomed this season. Compounding the surprise is that two of the manager’s trusted lieutenants were at fault for the equaliser.
Even so I don’t think there will be many changes to the team for today. Nacho Monreal having seemed to be battening down the hatches on the left back slot, had an unusually poor evening at Southampton and if Kieran Gibbs is fit, I would expect him to regain his place in the side. It is harsh but that position is one where the manager has options to pick purely on performance. The only other change is for Flamini. Arsène welcomes back Tomas Rosicky today and with the lack of options, it is hard to see beyond the Czech international partnering Mikel Arteta in the centre of midfield. It leaves Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain once more on the bench. Will the recent woes over injuries make Wenger wary of rushing the England international back? It leaves the line-up something like:
Szczesny; Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs; Rosicky, Arteta; Gnabry, Özil, Cazorla; Giroud
Three points is the focus for the players today, returning to the top of the table the objective. Despite Palace’s resurgence under former Orc general, Tony Pulis, surely Arsenal are too strong and will romp to a comfortable victory?
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.