Back in the early and mid ’80s, when there wasn’t a great deal of live football shown on television, the vast majority of Arsenal fans were delighted when their players pulled on an international shirt. It gave us a rare opportunity to see our players perform live on the big stage, particularly as the club’s days of appearing in Finals were (temporarily) over. I clearly remember when Tony Woodcock and Paul Mariner spearheaded the England attack and were greeted with a banner at Highbury the following Saturday which read “Well Done Woody and Paul – England’s finest.” Stretching the truth that may have been – but there was something exciting about seeing Arsenal players – in a difficult era for the club as a whole – pulling on an England or Scotland shirt. I used to be absurdly proud of the regularity of left back Kenny Sansom’s appearances in the international jersey, and it was always an exciting juncture when the international break arrived.
How times change. I don’t know any Arsenal fans who look forward to the international break anymore. Perhaps this time we should have been more positive about the whole experience. As Thomas Vermaelen pointed out a couple of weeks back, it does no harm for the non-internationals in club squad to recharge their batteries, and the team did look slightly jaded in the 1-1 draw with West Brom last weekend. But Arsenal don’t have too many non-internationals in their squad. One positive has been that it’s given time to Santi Cazorla (who along with posting a photograph of himself tweeted “Como recuerarse pronto” – How To Get Fit ASAP) and Lukas Podolski – both currently injured – to maintain their recovery from injuries sustained in August. But the reverse effect is that Olivier Giroud – who definitely seems to have tightened up slightly in recent games – is now at the forefront for France, playing against Australia on Friday and tipped to start for his country tomorrow night. Giroud really needed a rest, and limped around at the end of the previous 3 league games, but given his stellar start to the campaign, it’s unsurprising that he’s a sought after commodity for France. It’s a worrying prospect as to what condition he’ll return in later in the week, especially as the only other orthodox alternative up front is Nicklas Bendtner. Giroud’s fine start to the campaign could backfire on Arsenal. Wenger has indicated that if necessary, Podolski could be deployed up front, so the recent photograph of the German flexing his muscles at the training ground is a welcome sight indeed.
It’s the potential risk of injuries which now concerns many supporters, and why if there’s the slightest risk of an injury. My dread of the international break began in earnest in November 2009, when with Arsenal sitting pretty at the top of the league, and Robin Van Persie having scored 8 goals in 11 matches, he suffered a serious ankle injury whilst on international duty with Holland, following a strong armed tackle from Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini. It wasn’t even a Championship Qualifying match – it was a friendly. The initial prognosis was that he would be missing for 6 weeks. Then it turned into 6 months. Wenger fumed, and Arsenal’s title challenge predictably went south. This was at a time when the Dutchman tended to miss large chunks of the season due to assorted injuries anyway, but it was one thing him getting injured playing for Arsenal, and quite another when it was on non Gunners duty. Parochial and narrow minded it may seem, but that is the mind set of vast swathes of football supporters in this country. When RVP returned from injury the following April, he sparkled, and remained in scintillating form until his departure from the club in the summer of 2012. Had Van Persie remained fit for the bulk of the 2009 – 2010 campaign, his side might well have been genuine league title contenders. Without him, they fell away.
The other downside to the international break is that players gossip about contracts, managers, and “alternate playing opportunities.” With rumours rife that Cesc Fabregas wanted to leave Arsenal at the end of the 2010- 2011 campaign, the press printed assorted stories of his Spanish team mates (especially Xavi) virtually twisting his arm about moving back to Barcelona. Of course. Fabregas is a grown man who can make up his own mind, but the non stop noise in his ear was hardly conducive to his staying in North London. The same is true of Samir Nasri, who was initially linked with moving to Manchester United, rather than City. Tabloid tittle tattle suggested that French compatriots, in particular Patrice Evra, were vocal in their insistence that if the “little prince” wanted to win silverware, he needed to leave Arsenal sharpish. Nasri clearly took on board the advice, although he departed to the Etihad, not Old Trafford.
In the months and years ahead, let’s hope that on their international sojourns, Arsenal’s stars are singing the praises of both the club and new signing Mezut Ozil. In the late ’90s, it’s well documented that Dennis Bergkamp spoke at length with Marc Overmars about a move to Highbury and that Patrick Vieira did likewise with Thierry Henry some months before the moves were actually completed. It would end the negative spiral of tittle tattle over the last few years on international breaks, and see Arsenal continue to move in an upward trajectory.
Wenger has admitted to “praying” that there are no injuries to report when the players return to training on Thursday. With only 48 hours to go before the Gunners take on Norwich at home, their minds need to be focussed and ready for the job in hand against the Canaries, and at home against Dortmund next Tuesday. The evenings are getting darker and the legs are getting wearier. It’s all about the squad, which is why Cazorla’s and Podolski’s returns to action will be so welcome.
The international break will soon be over, and Arsenal’s season is about to begin in earnest.