Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Spine of Glass

For a team to be successful, we all know it needs to be strong down the middle of the pitch. A reliable goalkeeper, with a strong central defensive partnership in front. A midfield capable of destroying and creating in equal measure. A goalscorer up front.

Arsenal arguably have these components in theory, but almost never in practise. To be injury-prone is an Arsenal trademark.

Although Wenger still, unbelievably, refuses to buy an experienced goalkeeper of true quality, Szczesny has looked the best of the revolving bunch this season. He will now miss the rest of the season. Djourou and Vermaelen are the two best centre backs at the club. But they have had no opportunity to forge a partnership. While Vermaelen was impressing last season, Djourou was unavailable. This time around, Djourou has held things together alongside some frankly very erratic partners, while Vermaelen has fallen victim to the injury curse. And now Djourou himself has proven brittle yet again, and Arsenal are left with two apparently incompatible, error-prone defenders to see out the season.

Ahead of the defence, with Denilson and Diaby clearly not good enough to play for Arsenal, and Ramsey recovering from being Shawcrossed, Song, Wilshere and Fabregas established themselves as the unchallenged first choice trio. It is a midfield of flair and invention, even if they can be made to look lightweight at times. But when the back-up players are not up to the task, Arsenal cannot afford to see Cesc Fabregas suffer recurrent hamstring injuries, stalling his season time after time. Now Song too is missing important games, and Wilshere is holding things together despite his youth and inexperience.

Up front, Van Persie is, as proven by his New Year purple patch, a striker of real class. Nobody has ever doubted his ability to score goals, but in the last two seasons his link up play has improved and Arsenal play much better as a team with him in the side. But he is comically brittle and has never stayed fit for close to a full season. Chamakh and Bendtner could be good understudies to someone like Thierry Henry, who could be relied on to bang in goals all season long. Because of Van Persie's frequent, prolonged absences, they are being asked to do too much.

The evidence is that the spine of the Arsenal team is mostly made up of players whose fitness cannot be trusted in. Van Persie and Djourou have always been injury-prone. But after the last two seasons, Fabregas now invites that tag aswell. And Vermalen has been plagued by a problem of Rosickyesque proportions this season.

We still cannot be sure of the reasons. Is it just bad luck? Does Arsene Wenger sign too many brittle players? Is there a problem with the medical staff or with the training regime at the club? Are players rushed back from injury too often? Is the players' physical weakness somehow linked to their obvious mental weakness?

I have only talked about the main players down the middle of the team- no mention here of Abou Diaby's niggling problems, or Theo Walcott's, or Rosicky's. It is difficult to remember a time when Arsenal did not have a lengthy list of short and long term absentees. Worse still, it is difficult to suggest a solution, besides the fanciful one of dropping most of these players and bringing in more durable replacements, which in any case sounds like a recipe for more transition.

No comments: