What did Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Tottenham all have in common this week? All four clubs played Champions League matches mid-week with at least some of their starters and then followed those performances up with lacklustre displays in the Premier League, with City the only side able to pick up all three points. On the other hand, Arsenal, despite losing their Europa League clash with Koln, were able to play that match with a totally different set of players and still clinch their group. When the squad has been healthy, Arsene Wenger has not yet even felt the need to name his most important league starters to the bench for any non-league match. As a result, the Gunners were able to travel to Turf Moor, face a tough Burnley team, and escape with a hard-earned victory.
Before Sunday’s match, when it was announced that Mesut Ozil would be unavailable through illness and replaced by Alex Iwobi, a large section of Arsenal supporters flooded social media with roughly the same message: “Where’s Jack?!” With England manager Gareth Southgate in the stands at Turf Moor, Jack Wilshere would have jumped at the opportunity to play in a second match in a four day period, but wasn’t given the opportunity. Only serving to intensify the fan reaction, Iwobi was uninspiring on the day, appearing a half a step slow and providing very little surplus to Ozil’s typical defensive contribution. Wilshere finally did come on, but the Burnley low block continued to be as stifling and frustrating to him as it had his young Nigerian teammate.
In both instances, Arsene Wenger made the decision to rotate the squad despite the fact that doing so would make it more difficult to win. This season, Wenger has become more conscious than ever of the long-term health of his players. Over the last decade of struggling to compete in the league, Arsenal have developed a reputation for being injury prone. The list of brilliant technical players to arrive at the Emirates in recent times and promptly lose some of their best years to devastating or nagging injury is too long to begin reciting. Arsenal’s prior investment in StatDNA and the adoption of new, wearable technology has given the club, as well as others around the game, the information necessary to assess and monitor a player’s injury risk throughout the season. As part of the state of the art updates to the training facilities, the club also now have all sorts of machines for aiding in recovery, rehab and injury diagnosis.
Players that might have met all of the measurable criteria for “fit” just a few short years ago can now be identified early, and through a combination of data, like resting heart rate and muscle resiliency, and targeted exercise, brought back up to peak condition. Before these recent modern advancements in sports science, even managers in tune to their players’ best interests like Arsene Wenger might have played certain players multiple times a week, giving little consideration to the cumulative effect it might have on their ability to prevent injury.
Since Wenger made discovering the root of the club’s chronic injury woes a priority just over 3 seasons ago, the team have seen a gradual decline in severe soft tissue injuries, and those that are hobbled seem to be coming back a lot sooner than they had before. Though his exact contribution in his first season at the club could be debated, fitness guru Darren Burgess arrived this summer from Australia with an industry-leading reputation, and he could be expected to contribute to the Gunners staying healthy right away.
Combined with their recent work on overhauling the backroom staff, Arsenal’s recent work on injury prevention is yet another aspect being targeted for improvement. Ivan Gazidis has earned a lot of criticism through the years for his tone-deaf statements, but he has undeniably worked with Arsene Wenger to provide the club with the best that a field has to offer. Areas of recent weakness are rapidly being turned into strengths, with Arsenal now possessing a dream duo for both player recruitment and player fitness (with Burgess joining Shad Forsythe in that department). The club are acutely aware of the competition at the top of the Premier League for the best coaches and players, and clearly have now turned toward less mainstream and cost prohibitive ways to improve the club. Just don’t ask “Where’s Jack?!” anymore, because if he isn’t playing just 4 days on from his last start, assume there is a reason. If Arsenal are to challenge for honours in any competition this season, they must have every player possible at their disposal.