Ever since the days of the Invincibles, injuries have been a constant spectre for Arsenal Football Club. As the highly decorated, veteran squad gave way to a younger, Catalonian influenced side, the brand of football may have remained exciting, but the toughness and professionalism of the likes of Patrick Vieira and Dennis Bergkamp were becoming more difficult to find at London Colney. Arsenal’s reputation for frequent injuries has become something of a popular joke, with those that keep track of such things frequently finding the club high on the list of games missed by its players. Amongst the supporters, injuries have taken on a sort of inevitability, with many just assuming that the most important players could well be in doubt for the season’s most important matches.
Recently, however, this is finally said to be changing. Arsene Wenger has stated that the last couple of seasons have seen the club examine the way it handles injuries, specifically looking to reduce their occurrence while decreasing the length of recovery time before a player is back in contention for a match day place. Fans will recall recent players like Abou Diaby (whose unfulfilled potential is the stuff of legend for Arsenal fans), Aaron Ramsey, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Jack Wilshere suffering seemingly minor injuries only to be sidelined for weeks longer than expected. Even upon return, players often would re-aggravate those same injuries or pick up another soon after, often robbing huge stretches of the season from important players. Having lagged behind others in their ability to cope with soft tissue and muscular injuries, the team added American fitness ace Shad Forsythe, and only this year added another, Darren Burgess to address the issues.
The results have been promising, with evidence of players spending less time in the treatment room and more time contributing to the team. As Burgess, who received praise for his work turning Liverpool into perhaps the best-conditioned side in the league during his last stay in England, settles in and implements more of his ideas. However, with Arsenal currently in the midst of a mini injury crisis, Wenger will have to be creative with his ideas to overcome the shortage.
Let’s give him some ideas.
Pack the Midfield/Return to 4-2-3-1
What is the simplest solution for a team with so many injured defenders that they might not be able to field a full compliment? Easy, play with one less. The Gunners currently have their full complement of fullbacks healthy, but with only one true centre back fully fit (The other, Monreal, is a converted fullback), it could be extremely difficult for the Gunners to field their now typical 3-4-2-1 season on Thursday and again Sunday. Things are so dire that Mathieu Debuchy, the disgruntled Frenchman who has been angling for a departure since about 1947 (in reality: 2016), will be called back into action.
Luckily for the Gunners, the change would not be a foreign one, but rather a return to their favoured formation of the last two decades. This would offer Wenger flexibility in his options, as he could replace the defender with another pacey attacker on the flanks and put Ozil back at his preferred number 10 role, or even leave the German where he is on the right and bring in another central midfielder, such as Wilshere or Elneny, to help control the match and provide sturdier to the defence. In addition to easing the injury crisis at the back, it would also allow players like Wilshere to get more playing time in the league, as well as allow the Gunners to defend more from the front and in the midfield.
A Partner For Lacazette/Classic Arsenal 4-4-2
One thing that many fans have been calling out for in recent weeks is a strike partner for new signing Alexandre Lacazette. Much like he has in the France national team and had at Lyon last season, the Frenchman is used to having support up top. When watching him play, Lacazette is constantly bothering his marker, dragging him all around the top of the formation and making runs in behind the defence. With his burst and his finishing ability, he is a constant worry for the opposition, and even when being closely marked is able to find space to receive the ball.
However, too often the striker finds himself isolated. Lacazette expends huge amounts of energy when Arsenal have the ball constantly making clever runs in behind the defence, only for his teammates to not pick him out. A simple solution to this isolation would be to give him a proper strike partner. In his France teammate, Olivier Giroud, Arsenal have just the man for the job. Giroud could handle all of the bruising work holding up the play, freeing Lacazette up to both play off the big man and focus on his movement in and around the box. Like the 4-2-3-1, giving Lacazette a partner would also help minimize the effect of a lack of bodies at the back while remaining a threat on the counter. With the attack struggling at times this season for consistency, having another forward-thinking player, provided it doesn’t weaken the defence too much, could help ease those concerns.
Keep the Shape
The final, and sadly, most likely option for Arsene Wenger is to remain in their current formation. Earlier in the season, Wenger switched back to a 4-2-3-1 three different times when the Gunners needed a goal. However, since the Liverpool match, Wenger has largely kept the 3-4-2-1. It is apparent that Wenger has grown to appreciate the defensive stability that having three centre-backs provide. After their Anfield embarrassment, Arsenal rededicated themselves to tactical solidarity, with changes to everything from the spacing between the two centre midfielders to the position of the wing backs helping to shore up a leaky defence.
Without question, it will be difficult for Wenger to field a balanced side with the injury situation what it is, but if Arsenal are serious about the long-term prospects of a back 3, the experience will be invaluable. Today against Red Star Belgrade, Wenger will likely call on a collection of his youngsters to fill out the squad and give his starters some rest before a tough match with Everton this weekend.