06 Jan When the Search for Cohesion Goes Wrong: Arsenal’s Rotational Issues
It’s October 19, 2016, and Arsenal is facing Ludogorets in the Champions League group stage. Yeah, that game where Ozil gets the hat-trick. Arsenal is in form, having won its last 6 matches, including the first 2 in the group, and is facing a team at the Emirates that has only one Champions League victory in its history.
Arsenal is only 4 days removed from beating Swansea 3-2. Wenger proceeds to start Santi Cazorla, who is less than 2 months away from turning 32. It’s evident that he has the utmost faith in the Spaniard as he’s played Santi in all 11 meaningful games so far this season. It’s in this match he suffers an Achilles injury that still currently has him out of action. This video shows his final involvement for Arsenal:
We all know Arsene Wenger is a firm believer in player cohesion and the cultivation of on-pitch relationships rather than a rigid structure and clearly defined roles. When he finds an XI with chemistry, he is likely to stick with it for as long as need be or until we have a meaningless cup tie or international break.
Currently, we are coming off an intense festive period that leaves us without the services of Kolasinac, Monreal, Koscielny, Ramsey, Giroud, and Xhaka (temporarily) for this weekend’s FA cup tie. Injuries happen and are unpredictable. You can assign no blame in the cases of Kolasinac and Giroud. However, the other four players could have benefited from some semblance of rotation as they had been overplayed this season, often through knocks and niggles.
This is not an isolated incident. Past years has provided other instances of over-playing older or injury-plagued players into harm. The cases provided below detail vital players in the Arsenal system where their overuse was remiss of common sense. It’s hard not to believe we could have had better seasons had they been involved.
Case #1: Aaron Ramsey, ‘13-’14 Season
Injured – 12/26/13
Returned – 4/2/14
Days Out – 97
The Context: Aaron Ramsey was absolutely killing it. He was putting in the types of performances that had many classifying him as one of the best attacking midfielders in the world.
- Up to his injury, he had 12 goals and 6 assists in 27 total games
- He played in 27 of 28 total matches (rested vs. West Brom in Rd. 3 of League Cup)
- Arsenal’s Record: Won 19, Draw 3, Lost 5
- He played in 2 games in 4 days leading to his injury
The Importance: Ramsey was on the verge of becoming a superstar. He was able to come back from his 97 days out and produce at a similar level, but I feel there was a cost that Arsenal has paid ever since. The following season, ‘14-’15, he went down with 3 separate thigh strains (same injury cited above) and missed 18, 29, and 20 games respectively. It’s no wonder we haven’t seen him hit the same highs of the ‘13-’14 season as he has battled this type of injury ever since.
Case #2: Mikel Arteta, ‘14-’15 Season
Injured – 11/26/14
Returned – 3/27/15
Days Out – 121
The Context: It’s only October 18 and already Mikel Arteta has had to recover from 3 separate injury layoffs. He makes the bench against Hull and does not play. The following game, on October 22, he is an unused sub against Ludogorets. On October 25 he starts against Sunderland and proceeds to start every match, except one, until he picks up a calf strain in a 2-0 victory against Dortmund on November 26.
- In 33 total days, Wenger starts Arteta in 5 out of the 6 games Arsenal play
- Arsenal’s Record: Won 3, Draw 1, Lost 1
- He played in 3 games in 9 days leading up to his injury
The Importance: When healthy, Arteta was a stabilizing force in the center of the pitch. What he lacked in mobility he more than made up with his positional awareness and ability to keep the ball moving while linking midfield to attack.
On the surface, playing 5 out of 6 games seems more than reasonable. What makes it negligent is the fact that he had succumb to 3 injuries already that season and needed to be managed accordingly. Many say we haven’t had enough leaders on the pitch in past years, they must not have seen Arteta play.
Case #3: Santi Cazorla, ‘16-’17 Season
Injured – 10/19/16
Returned – Still Out
Days Out – 445 days and counting
The Context: Santi’s case has been detailed earlier. Fully entrenched in his deep-lying midfield role, he was a vital cog in the Arsenal engine. A cog that many would argue has not be adequately replaced in an area of the pitch that has been devoid of solidity ever since.
His first game was vs. Liverpool coming off a European Championship summer where he was intended to be rested but was instead subbed in the 61st minute.
- Up to his injury, he had 3 goals and 2 assists in 11 total games
- Played in 11 of 12 total matches (rested vs. Nott. Forest in Rd. 3 of League Cup)
- Arsenal’s Record: Won 8, Draw 2, Lost 1 (opening day vs. L’Pool)
- He played in 2 games in 5 days leading to his injury
The Importance: Arsenal was in the middle of arguably its best footballing form in recent memory. Given his short summer break due to the Euro’s and his age, he should have never been involved in every meaningful match until mid-October. Simply said, we have not been the same without him in midfield.
In summary, I feel Arsenal has a significant issue when it comes to over-utilizing key players. What resonates with me is how lasting of an impact these injuries seem to have, as well as how avoidable they appear to be. The speed and physicality of Premier League football, as well as football at the Champions League level, makes some semblance of rotation a must. We have not balanced long-term sustainability with short-term reward. There are countless other cases as well that I stumbled upon through interactions with Gooners on Twitter* as well as my own research. Denilson in 2009, Arshavin in 2009, Fabregas in 2010, Vermaelen in 2011, and Giroud in 2014 are a few of many.
We have just endured a brutal run of 6 games in 21 days over the festive period. Koscielny has already succumbed to injury having played the full 90 in every match until his injury against West Brom. Jack Wilshere and Hector Bellerin have played the full 90 in all 6 matches and Granit Xhaka has played all but 3 minutes (87’ sub against Palace). One can’t help but wonder, who’s the next key man to go down?
Follow me on Twitter @dfresh10
*Thanks to @itha_chris, @ArsenalTherapy, @bj_dunham, @5MinuteFinal
**All stats courtesy of worldfootball.net