Norwich City 1 – 1 Arsenal
0 – 1 Özil (30)
1 – 1 Grabban (43)
As he watched Alexis’s hand clasp the back of his thigh, I half-expected Arsène to remove his shirt and reveal his t-shirt with “Why does it always happen to me?” Early reports suggest the Chilean is out for the usual three weeks which to be honest, is of little surprise.
Wenger fears that Alexis had more than the kick on the hamstring that the player claimed but in true footballing fashion, decided that attack was the best form of defence. He rounded on the media, claiming that “the players are there to play football, not to be rested when the press decides when they need to be rested.”
Unfortunately, when the press are proved right, that kind of attack reinforces how much of a gamble Wenger has taken with Alexis since the opening day of the season. Indeed, by playing him yesterday – his third game in a week – Arsène didn’t heed his own pre-international break warnings about the dangers of overplaying the Chilean.
That though, is the pattern of this season. Sanchez was rushed back into action at the start of the season and not given a break since. Arsène is the architect of his own downfall.
He wasn’t the only key player to hobble away from Carrow Road. Laurent Koscielny found out just how painful it is to be hip, lasting barely ten minutes before being replaced whilst Santi Cazorla was a footballing Black Knight and played on with only one leg, according to his manager. It seems it was a little more than a flesh wound.
All this in the former quiz capital of English television. Despite being just two points adrift of leaders Manchester City, questions are being asked of Wenger and the players. The biggest of which are to the defensive side of the game. Over the past two games, Arsenal have been under pressure for maybe half-an-hour. Thirty minutes out of more than three hours of football yet that has been enough for them to concede three goals.
Indeed, were it not for a great save from Cech, it would have been four and two distinctly average Premier League sides would have inflicted as much damage on Arsenal as Bayern Munich.
But it’s the injuries which are of most concern. Cazorla’s role in the middle will be handed to Aaron Ramsey according to Arsène, if the Spaniard doesn’t recover in time for next weekend’s match with Sunderland. Presumably the right hand side will be occupied by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and the left by Joel Campbell.
Quite who the alternatives to them are is far from clear. A look at yesterday’s bench tells you how deep injuries have bitten and that is the fundamental worry. Ramsey and Ox are returning from injury and face the prospect of ninety minutes of football when they could do with no more than an hour each if they are managing their return sensibly.
Injuries are depriving Wenger of options and the folly of the summer past, is fully laid bare. Without reinvestment, the squad has slipped into the same cycles as previous years, losing players at key times and facing the prospect of rushing players back, not in terms of when they were due to return to the matchday squad but of playing ninety minutes too soon.
It isn’t just that side of the game which is affected. Arsène doesn’t have options in the match to change things. That wouldn’t have particularly helped yesterday with injuries disrupting the normal flow of changes. However, had another midfielder been bought in the summer, Aaron Ramsey’s return might have been from the bench once more as an option when things needed changing to inject some pep into proceedings.
We don’t have that now, especially up front where Olivier Giroud was being starved of opportunities by lack of service and the close attentions of the defence. Even then, he contributed by a poor game although by no means as low in standards as he has stooped this season. At the moment, Arsenal need a second goal to give themselves any hope of winning the game and the pressure is on strikers in those situations.
Arsenal created little of note, the goal aside. There were moments of danger but nothing which could be marked down as a potential game-changing opportunity. It was a laboured performance in that sense, moments of quick passing and movement were rare. Some of that is down to the injuries suffered but it was generally low-key. Typically November, if you like.
And it was another opportunity to get to the top of the table, the second in consecutive weeks, which was wasted and that intensifies the feelings of disappointment. Instead of looking to consolidate a three-point lead, we have to wonder if the players can stay in touch enough to make the pre-Christmas visit of Manchester City a top of the table clash.
It’s certainly one which might signal the beginning of the end of the title challenge with defeat. A five-point gap is on the cusp of a wobble but just a win away from being close enough to give the leaders pause for thought.
And it’s so typically Arsenal at the moment. Doing things the hard way, achieving success through adversity, is an admirable quality but the question is why it had to be difficult in the first place? Why the repetitive cycle is endured? Aside from the trip to Greece, Arsenal have one game a week until Christmas. Perhaps we can find some answers in that time.