Burden on Bendtner as injuries bite

Injuries, injuries, injuries. Arseblog this morning reiterated some of the snaps, twangs, fractures, strains and pings that have blighted us this season. It is indeed a minor miracle that, with the injuries we’ve had and got, we’ve arrived at the beginning of April still in contention both in the league and in the European Cup.

But can we cope? With every goalscoring midfielder we lose, things get incrementally harder unless someone else steps up to the plate.

It’s one thing going without Djourou, Ramsey, Gallas and Gibbs (8 goals in total this term) but to lose both Arshavin and Fabregas (30 goals) on top of van Persie (8) could well prove to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

It means that almost half of all our goals scored this season have come from players who are now injured (46 from 101), and while we are very capable of scoring goals from all across the field, the losses of Fabregas and Arshavin are big, big blows.

Bendtner – a player who has himself missed a huge chunk of the season – is now our top fit scorer with nine goals, closely followed by the indomitable and hopefully titanium-coated Thomas Vermaelen on eight.

A huge goalscoring burden now falls on the big Dane, and we’re going to need more from Walcott, Eduardo, and our goalscoring midfielders (Diaby, Nasri and Denilson) as well.

To gauge just how big a loss Fabregas’s goals will be, consider this: Walcott, Diaby, Nasri and Denilson combined have scored one goal less than Cesc has this season. (Update: I got this a bit wrong. Combined they have 21 to Cesc’s 19 – but the point remains).

Then there’s Eduardo. He’s scored six goals this season, but only three (from 22 appearances) in the Premier League. Wenger has used him so sparingly that it’s hard not to conclude that something isn’t right. Whether he’s carrying knocks, or his head is not right, or he’s lost a yard of pace – who knows. But it seems a tall order to throw him in at the deep end and expect miracles.

All of which leaves us with the van Persie issue. He’s back training with Arsenal, and while Wenger wanted to give him a month to get back to top condition, could the current situation force a rethink?

The boss has got to be tempted.

Prospects, Walcott and… Andy Linighan

Match updates via text – how 2006 is that? It fell on the willing shoulders of @feverpitch to keep me in the loop during Saturday’s game, as I had been called up for duty elsewhere. He did a sterling job, signing it all off by waxing lyrical about Andy Linighan. It takes a man of a certain age to a) remember Andy Linighan and b) wax lyrical about him.

Would Linighan get into today’s team? Ha – now there’s a conundrum. No, in short. Though I’d have him as a sub, if only so he could come on, zombie-like and barely able to see through a bloodied bandage, to nod a 93rd minute cup final winner.

As an Arsenal fan, it feels like a slightly odd time though. A cursory glance at the league table tells you that we are doing very well; within sneezing distance of second in fact, and not impossibly far away from the league leaders with just 11 games remaining.

But still, any talk of a genuine title challenge seems incredibly fanciful to me, and I’m hardly the only one to think that. It’s not borne of deep natural pessimism, though I do have some of that floating about, more a realistic assessment based on what we have seen so far. Are we disgruntled as fans? No, I’d say not. But we’re far from being gruntled. (With apologies to P.G. Wodehouse).

For much of this campaign, the next defensive blip or injury has seemed nearer than the next run of form, and yet here we are, far from out of things.

What we are crying out for more than anything is for the injury clouds to miraculously burn off and for some of our key players to hit a rich vein of form. I chuckle sourly as I write that of course, because it’s easier said than done. It does sound plainly obvious too, but how can any team be properly judged when half its big players are either out long-term, or are blighted by boomerang injuries? It’s held us back all season, along with kamikaze losses of concentration.

One of the players who has had a poor old season but who could yet make an enormous difference over the next three months is of course Theo Walcott. He’s had something wrong with just about every part of his body this season, so perhaps we have expected too much too soon. By the sound of it, his game did pick up on Saturday – can he rip into form just at the right time? What a weapon he might be if he could.

Wenger for one has bemoaned the “terrible pressure” on Walcott, presumably most of it because he is English and we’re in a World Cup year. It’s been said before, but he needs to forget England completely and get on with improving his game for his employers. Look after his club form and the international side of things will take care of itself. There’s no doubt that a confident, fit and hungry Walcott could be like… am I allowed to say… oh go on then… a new signing.

Anyway, there’s a whole week off now to train for long throws and set pieces. And for the Arsenal medical team to dish out strepsils, deep heat and magic sponges to whoever finds himself on the injury list this week.

One down, three to go

Good result, bad result, two points lost or one gained – we just don’t know yet. I would wager that a draw at Villa is a good result, but ask me again after the next three games and we’ll know more. We were hardly going to go there and waltz it.

The main sensation I had from last night though was that we didn’t play that well. We didn’t lose but we hardly set the pulse racing. That feeling fans can get of an unstoppable head of steam building up – of a team on the verge of take-off – well my own view is we’re still a way off that.

What it does mean though – and don’t tell the marketing men at Sky in case they milk it – is that Sunday’s set-to is undeniably hugely significant. Winning it might put the wind into our sails. Losing it might knock us into the doldrums.

I know Vermaelen and Eduardo succumbed to Arsenal Fever – the former fortunately not breaking a bone – but there is at least some comfort in the knowledge that we’ve got fewer players out now than we’ve had out for a while. Nasri, Song, Eboue, Walcott, Rosicky, Bendtner, Clichy, Sagna, Fabregas – all have had recent injuries of varying severity, or have been away, and all are now back.

I said back at the beginning of the month that to not strengthen the squad at a point where we find ourselves in a healthy league position would be almost criminal. It’s a young squad with some extremely talented players and potential oozing out its pores but there’s surely not a soul on this planet who believes Arsenal could not be strengthened.

So I 100% agree with those who say that buying could only benefit us. How could it not? Look what spending £10m on Vermaelen did. The market, it’s clear, is hugely subdued, so I’m not expecting miracles. But I do still think we might swoop (for that is the only suitable verb to use across all media outlets as Jan 31st edges closer) for someone. It’s not due to some magical intuition or insider knowledge.

It can probably be put down as being nothing more than the eternal optimism of the average football fan.

PS – Comments are totally kaput since I upgraded to the most recent version of WordPress. They’ve disappeared. Can’t post new ones. I have no idea why so if you can help on that front, or know someone who can, I’d appreciate any advice going. You can mail me at eastlower AT googlemail.com or DM me on @eastlower on Twitter. Ta!

Update: Comments are back. Thanks to all who responded to my desperate plea and in particular @arseblog, @jim_aboutaball and @govindraj

Wenger stuck between a rock and a hard place

“I want to pick a team which is strong enough to win the game, without ignoring we are under immense physical demands in every single game right now and the fact some players need to have a breather.”

It was always pretty clear to me that the almost permanent hindrance of having anywhere between four and eleven players out injured would mean compromise at some point. Tomorrow could be that compromise, with the probability of it being a very young side given the responsibility to get us through the fourth round of the cup at Stoke.

The Arsenal medical team have scratched their heads, Wenger’s suggested it could be a vicious cycle of rushing players back because we need them, only to see them crocked again because they weren’t ready, but whatever the answer is, the fact is we cannot realistically expect to challenge for the title, the Champions League and the FA Cup when each weekend another one or two players pick up injuries. To challenge for all three with a full squad would be a tall enough order. To do with a long list of crocks is an impossibility.

Take right back as an example. Barry Sagna desperately needs to rest his sore shoulder, but with Eboue in Africa and Gilbert on loan, there is literally nobody else. So with one eye on four league humdingers ahead, and the other eye on Sagna’s fitness, it’s going to be Eastmond or Coquelin.

So clearly, Wenger is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.

Wenger has no choice but to gamble. If he played a youthful side with a full squad twiddling its thumbs at home, I’d struggle with that.

But under the circumstances – no van Persie, no Bendtner, no Diaby, no Ramsey, no Nasri, no Sagna, no Merida, no Gibbs, no Djourou, no Song, no Eboue – it’s hard to be too critical.

More thoughts tomorrow.

Seize the moment (and fix the unfixed)

Good things, as they say, come to those who wait.

I sat watching Sky Sports on 1st January expecting a flurry of new players to change hands within moments, and here we are some three weeks later with a 35-year-old prodigal-ish son having returned but not much else. This transfer window thus far has been a poker game, with few people yet prepared to declare their cards. Looks like we need to be patient and put on our flak jackets for a 31st January blowout.

We’ve also been waiting for some time for the pleasure of looking down from the summit of the league. Yes, I know we were top after a few games this season, but I’m not counting that. If we counted early season form, we’d be top every year courtesy of being alphabetically superior.

With perhaps the toughest string of games coming that I can recall, it would have all sorts of positive effects to enter that fearsome foursome/queasy quartet from the top of the league. Which is why an ordinarily mundane fixture against a side who a) are struggling and b) have never been the easiest on the eye has got a bit of a fizz about it.

We can worry about those four games later. For the time being, we just need to beat Bolton to keep the momentum up and the confidence high. We also need to work out how on earth our season has been scuppered – and yet not sunk – by our extraordinary run of injuries. I know I bang on about it, but the sheer number of crocks we’ve had this season seems more than mere coincidence. Evidently, it’s something the Arsenal hierarchy have been scratching their heads over too. As the boss said today:

“We have analysed absolutely everything. It is strange because the more injuries you get, you then seem to get even more because you always play the same players. Also, you rush some players back and then you have more chance to get them injured again.”

I can see what his argument is, but at the same time, it’s a bit mysterious how Gallas and Vermaelen, for example, have not missed any league games this season whereby others – Walcott, van Persie, Diaby, Nasri, Denilson etc – have been in and out like the tides. It’s hugely frustrating.

Onto tomorrow though, and after a few missed games over the festive period I’m gurning with excitement at the thought of getting back into the Arsenal saddle.

I’ll be there, irrespective of the state of my hamstrings, knees, shoulders, shinsplints and ankles. Arsenal players, take note.

Pre-Saturday Sunday preview

Morning all, and it’s now a mere 57 hours away from our next home game. Anyone not noticed? I think we can safely scrub talking about anything else between now and then.

Obviously, Sky think Christmas has come early with a fixture like Sunday’s, but even for scoffers of Sky, once you’ve scraped the hype off this one there still can be no denying that Arsenal v Chelsea is a pivotal game for both teams.

It’s fair to say that following about a decade of Arsenal dominance in this fixture, in recent years fortunes have swung the other way a bit. Last year we smashed-and-grabbed our way to a 2-1 win at their place, but got walloped 4-1 at home in the return, which came immediately after being walloped at home in the European Cup semi-final. Cruel times.

I suppose those two games summed up what we had known since about September of 2008 – that we were clearly off the pace. This time round, however, and things feel different in many ways. By and large we’ve performed well and have shown signs of real promise – signs that we’re making progress. And as a football fan, progress has got to be the next best thing to winning trophies.

For me, it’s one of those really fascinating games because on top of the standard annual rivalry, it will give us a good indication what the real state of play at the top of the table is. Lose and we have a mountain to climb – and could drop back to fourth depending on other results. Win and we would be a game in hand away from narrowing the gap to two points.

Chelsea are undeniably setting a fine pace this season. But those who consider that Chelsea’s power, size and experience will be too much for our depleted ranks would do well to remember that, on the evidence to date, we are a much better side this year than last.

We have a 100% home record in our favour, and while Chelsea’s home record is equally as impressive as ours, on the road they have lost twice and conceded seven goals. They’ll be as wary about our game-changing players as we will be of theirs. And in Fabregas, Arshavin, Rosicky, Walcott, Nasri and Eduardo, we have plenty of pint-sized creativity.

It’s such a shame that we can’t face them with our best line-up, but injuries have been one of the less enjoyable threads permeating this season and by now we’re entirely used to making do and mending. Having said that, we’re not as short of players as it sometimes seems (though we are short of players who aren’t short – but that’s another argument entirely).

Up front we’re obviously without Bendtner and van Persie, with Clichy and Gibbs missing at the back. Gallas, we were told yesterday, is another big doubt but I’d be hugely surprised if he didn’t make the starting line-up. Given his bitter departure from Chelsea, and given the less than palatable alternative or Silvestre or Senderos, both he and Wenger will want to patch him up and get him out there.

So assuming he makes the cut, we’re a left-back and a centre-forward away from being able to field our best XI in the favoured 4-3-3 formation. It’s not so bad when you put it that way.

I’m getting giddy already.

Now you don’t see ’em, now you do

Fridays always have the potential to bring better news on the injury front, what with Wenger’s press conference, and there was certainly plenty of good news today.

From a list that that seemed earlier on this week to be mushrooming out of control, things now look a bit more normal, don’t they? Yesterday we learned that Fabianski, Denilson, Vela and Traore were back, while today we were told that Walcott and Wilshere are also fit. And as we know, the injuries to van Persie and Gibbs are not as bad as first thought – though the former still won’t be seen this side of Christmas.

So this is all good news. That’s not to say tomorrow’s squad won’t be markedly different to the last time we played a league game (which feels like about three months ago). Gallas, Sagna and Arshavin may all be rested after their midweek exploits.

It can be hard to keep up with all these injuries, and I do have some sympathy for those who think the modern footballer is far too brittle. On the one hand, I accept, football has become a lot faster, but is that enough to explain the raft of injuries we have endured this season? Other clubs are experiencing this too; it’s definitely not purely an Arsenal thing.

Perhaps I don my rose-tinted spectacles by saying it was never this bad before. I don’t remember ever having six or seven (or more) players out at one time, back in the Don Howe, George Graham era. It’s a good job the modern football squad tends to be so extensive. We need it.

Anyway, the return of league football is a blessed relief.

I have largely managed to avoid the brouhaha about Henry’s handball. I was out on Wednesday night, and I use the Wenger defence by telling you I never even saw it – until today.

For me, the one thing that has come out of this is – yet again – the belief that we now need video technology to take care of contentious issues. We cannot rely on players to be honest, just as we cannot rely on referees to get everything right. Regrettably, nor we can we rely on football’s governing bodies to agree to it at all. But it makes increasing sense to me, and you may even find that it cleans up the game in ways you might not anticipate. Would players hound referees as much if, for example, they knew that their team had three chances throughout a game to question a decision? Would players dive as much?

There’s so much at stage, and I’m increasingly convinced that video technology can be used in a way that doesn’t slow the game down too much and doesn’t totally undermine the referee at the same time.

Arsenal’s Injury XI

So what’s going on? Well hey – guess what – this evening Kieran Gibbs has picked up the now mandatory injury playing in the England U21 qualifier away to Lithuania. We await further news, but who thought, when we lined up for the season with three left-footed left-backs, that where left-backs were concerned, we were a touch over-subscribed? I know I did. How foolish I was.

His is the latest in a line of injuries so long, that as far as I can see, should we need to field an Injured XI for one reason or another, we could put out a team that could well hold its own. The injury XI is a bit top-heavy, but it’s a pretty decent line-up. The below is based upon Arsenal.com’s own injury page, which I accept, might no longer be entirely accurate. For the sake of fitting all the players into a playable formation, I’ve gone 3-4-3. So anyway, how’s this:

Fabianski

Gibbs Djourou Clichy

Walcott Denilson Traore Wilshere

Bendtner van Persie Vela

Quite honestly, the injury situation at the club takes some beating. I know plenty of other sides have – or have had – key players out this season, but we do seem to have been particularly heavily afflicted. And there’s no let-up, either.

As it stands, van Persie’s injury opens the door for Eduardo, who is just about the last striker standing. Walcott, we are told, is not far away. And there’s Vela – perhaps, if we could track him down. It’s a good job we’ve got Nasri and Rosicky back is it could mean a more central and advanced role for Arshavin.

Well, if we’re looking for someone with the X Factor, there’s always Theduardo.

Theduardo

I do apologise for that. But it’s an international week.

Sorry.

AZ thoughts/App review

Points dropped, not a big deal

I was very close to lauding Alex Song to the heavens last night when he dropped his guard – as to be honest did the rest of the Arsenal defence – in the 93rd minute, enabling AZ Alkmaar to equalise.

He did have a terrific game, but he’s not the polished gem we would yet have him to be, even though his improvement has been spectacular. It’s easy to forget how metronomically average he had been before the middle of last season – when he took a magic potion – so I’d rather big him up than little him down.

And he was hardly the only culprit. Sagna today admitted that “tonight we switched off because we thought maybe that the game was over and they scored a nice goal.”

“With injury time, we have to concentrate 95 minutes these days”, he added, though of course that’s not quite correct – at Man Utd it’s 97 minutes.

Dropping two points once the game is meant to be over is annoying, but it’s not the end of the world. We’re still well placed, and if anything, it’s a reminder (as if one was needed) that the very worst thing we can do right now is get carried away.

Seven wins in a row has the habit of doing that. Yes, we’ve done well, but the ramshackle defending in our penalty area at the death last night should sharpen the mind.

Of course, we’re still talking about injuries too. Walcott is now out for a while – it’s been a seasonus horribilus for him – and Rosicky, Bendtner, Eduardo etc were all missing too. It’s one of the themes of the modern Arsenal era. What are the odds of having all our players fit, even for a slither of time, this season? It’s seemingly a mathematical and scientific impossibility.

On the bright side, Samir Nasri made a comeback for the reserves last night, (alongside Wookash) and he’s another attacking option – though perhaps not yet ready to be thrown into action. It says a lot for how Rosicky has started the season that Nasri has not really been missed, but the added competition for places is crucial.

As for the goalkeeping situation, well I’m as intrigued as the rest of you. Was it simply a loss of form, or was there more to it?

I have a theory: Almunia must have applied for his British passport. As soon as he became a British citizen, Wenger probably thought he’d go out on the lash and wrap his motor round a lamp post, so he dropped him.

Or maybe not.

It’s certainly an intriguing situation though – Mannone has shown oodles of promise, but he’s still so raw. Fabianski cannot be guaranteed a shot at it. What price a dip into the transfer market in January?

Arsenal app

The folks over at Arsenal asked me if I would be prepared to give their new iPhone app an honest review. So as an man who likes iPhones, apps and Arsenal – I agreed.

They’ve gone big on it, haven’t they? There were ads in the urinals at Arsenal on Saturday, and it was given pride of place in the app store for a while after it was launched.

The first thing I am compelled to bring up is the £2.99 cost. So what do you get for the money?

Well on an iPhone, the main Arsenal website has always been of a slow loader, so for that alone then the cut-down news, fixtures and squad biogs are a definite improvement.

Perhaps its best current feature is video highlights – good quality match highlights, and free (ie not attached to a separate Arsenal TV Online subscription), though not as lengthy as the highlights you get online. There are also stills galleries – again, decent quality.

That’s pretty much what your money gets you at the moment – nicely cut-down iPhone-ised key sections (news, fixtures, table, gallery, squad and match highlights/other video news), plus a bunch of additional links that just go straight to the main Arsenal website.

What I’d like to see (apart from better O2 or wifi coverage at the ground – but that’s another matter) is more emphasis on the live coverage, such as match stats, audio and the Arsenal TV stuff for subscribers. Interestingly, that’s apparently “coming soon…” – I’m told there’s more to come.

So a decent first release, I would say, with a nod in the direction of the video highlights in particular.

Make Do and Mend

Manchester City 4-2 Arsenal

Bit late in the day to add my tupp’orth about yesterday’s match – couldn’t get anywhere near the pooter till now. Obviously, it’s mostly about Adebayor, which is wrong, but there you go.

I only saw the stamp on Match of the Day last night. When you see it in slow motion you can understand why van Persie released the statement he did – and why Arsenal were happy to put it up. It was an intentional jab at van Persie and it was vicious. It’s so blatant that he will almost certainly get a 3-match ban. Couple that with him running 100-yards at great speed (as many have pointed out, something he didn’t do at all last season) to goad the Arsenal fans, and I’d be pretty amazed if he got away with less than five games out.

Listening to 606 last night, it seemed to me that some people were missing the point as to why he is now the undisputed, all-time villain for Arsenal fans. His greediness for a new deal was, frankly, expected – all footballers do it. His two-faced attempts to move to a new club are hardly new either – though he was more brazen than most. No, those aren’t the things that mattered most. But going through the motions was unforgivable – and he did that for most of the season. I’d say most fans can forgive most footballers for their myriad failings so long as those players give it their all. He didn’t. Anyway – he merits no more of my time.

More pressing, frankly, is how we lost again having played pretty well, why we are making so many errors and how we have already conceded eight league goals.

Mitigating factors: 3 away games from 4, post-international hangover, key injuries in creative areas, general play and movement good, unlucky not to have scored more.

But it doesn’t matter how rosy a picture you try to paint. The fact is, we’ve already lost two games we shouldn’t have, against teams that hardly ran us off the park. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a concern. Sure, they were away, and against two sides that will be competing at the upper echelons, but we’ve thrown points away, pure and simple.

Yesterday, we lacked some artistry – in many ways, it was the classic post-international match – but we also made elementary mistakes. Almunia is away with the fairies at the moment, and Clichy had a rotten game. Song should have done better for their second goal, and where was the marking for the third?

But still, it is very early doors, and far too soon to sharpen knives. Fortunately, we’re back in the saddle on Wednesday, then back to the Grove on Saturday. So no time to dwell.

How we could do with Arshavin, Walcott and Nasri back to add to the recently returned Rosicky, though. Two players on each wing – that was how it was meant to be. It’s a classic case of Wenger having to make do and mend – or should that be ‘make Diaby and Bendtner’?

Think of the options those three would have given us had they been fit.

Finally, I had an email telling me that there’s an investigative piece on BBC Radio 5live tonight – sometime between 7.30pm and 8.30pm – on the personal, political and business life of Usmanov. I’ll be listening – no idea what kind of a picture it will paint, but it should be interesting.