If a week is a long time in politics, it’s a lifetime in football. Arsenal’s world has turned once more, three consecutive wins with injury striking Everton’s forward line changing the complexion of the battle for fourth place. There are more twists and turns to be had, defeat at St Mary’s on Saturday might see The Toffees come unstuck, especially if Newcastle remain true to form on Monday night at The Emirates. What was a close run race can become a canter in the blink of an eye.
As Everton’s woes begin, Arsenal’s ease. The weekend saw the return of Mesut Özil to add strength to a midfield already bolstered by Aaron Ramsey. The cavalry is thundering over the hill with Abou Diaby leading the way, closely followed by Jack Wilshere ahead of the World Cup. Inevitably thoughts turn to ‘what ifs’ when the injury list begins to shorten to the point where Theo Walcott is the only first team regular who is likely to miss Wembley. As he sat on the stretcher being given his cab fare home by the visiting Tottenham supporters, I doubt the prospect of not being back before the start of next season had crossed his mind. As the teams walk out at Wembley, spare a thought for the England international. Having been at the club throughout the lean years, the chance of a winner’s medal once more eludes his grasp.
The combination of injuries has affected the season, nobody questions that and enough of those have been posed about the January transfer window so there is little to be gained in rehashing old ground. In any case, Diaby is back (yay!) so we have a new signing. It is impossible not to have sympathy for the player on a human level. There is a good midfielder in there, frustrated by the continued run of injuries which have not so much curtailed his career but chopped it off at the knees. Judging by the photos released yesterday, somebody has chopped at the lad’s knees on a regular basis. Whether Diaby is as good a player as the mythology which has built around him suggests is another matter. That is built on the short bursts of games he has played in recent seasons on top of a promising start; whether any substance is added to that legend is another matter.
With the ruthlessness Arsène has shown in the past to others, will that ever been seen at Arsenal? Can he maintain the fitness levels needed for the English game, the rigours of which have surely hindered his recoveries in the past. Which is before you consider the brutality which brought on the sequence of events of the past seven or so years. To put that into context, at the age of 27, he has played twenty-odd fewer games that Ramsey, who is four years in his junior and missed a year or more of his own career through injury. The manager’s patronage has benefited his compatriot and I am not convinced that another regime would have been so amiable, such is the nature of the professional game. I don’t think Diaby is ever going to be the player he threatened to be four seasons ago. The cameo he provided in 2012/13 hinted at that but again, he was struck down. It is up to him to decide whether his career would be better served by a less physically demanding environment.
That crystallises the what-ifs; there are so many of them going back to 2004, a footballing mental torture if you want to embark upon that journey. Injuries run as a central theme and this season is no different. As he has returned to the midfield and generally continued where he left off, Ramsey is the focal point of attention. What if he had stayed fit, think of what might have been achieved. Not bad for a player who was roundly abused as his manager played him in positions he is not naturally suited to as he strove to regain fitness levels. But I don’t think his injury was the one which has killed off any ambitions for loftier Premier League status than fourth place.
To me, Theo Walcott’s absence has been more critical. That is not downplaying Ramsey’s importance to the side, he offers drive to the play and a goal threat from midfield. But Walcott offers pace and more goals, neither of which has been consistently replaced in the starting line-up. Despite the comfortable win at the weekend, there were some moments which encapsulated the problem Arsenal face without Walcott’s pace as an outlet. If Giroud cedes possession or looked for support, the ball invariably went back and into a congested midfield. There was no ball over the top on the right as an outlet, possession was retained and came infield. Not that it was too much of an issue with Özil, Cazorla and Arteta quite comfortable at keeping the ball and making the opposition chase shadows. But when they wanted an outlet, their options were diminished and as with past matches, you could see that they were looking almost wistfully at the wing.
You can get carried away with that game though. The performances at Anfield, Stamford Bridge and Goodison Park were not as a result of one or two missing players. After all, we had conceded six at Eastlands with a strong XI; the potential for those disasters was already there but crucially, I think the matches following, the ones were a point was gained and not victory achieved, those were the ones where the difference could and would, have been seen. Not enough to launch a title challenge, losing at the homes of our rivals scuppered that, but enough to make Mourinho’s bizarre threat to play kids at Anfield at the weekend, a decision which might push Chelsea down into fourth place. That I think is where the difference would have been made and that is an issue of depth in the squad, a weakness to be addressed this summer.