Arsenal’s “mystery injuries”

There are few clubs whose fate in recent seasons can be tied as strongly to their management of player injuries as Arsenal. It remains a bittersweet proposition to imagine how Arsenal might have fared in 2009-10 if they had managed to field a team containing Thomas Vermaelen, Cesc Fabregas, Robin van Persie, Samir Nasri, Jack Wilshere and Andrey Arshavin on a consistent basis. On one of the few occasions that they did, Arsenal produced one of the games of the season enroute to beating Barcelona 2-1 in a thrilling contest at the Emirates. It appeared the sky was the limit, but by the time of the second leg, Vermaelen, Walcott and Arshavin were injured, van Persie barely made it and Fabregas started the match in such a bad state that he later admitted he could barely run.

Alongside the well-documented defensive lapses, and inability to adapt to games of attrition that hamper their fluid passing style, it can be argued that failing to keep his best players fit has had an equally important role to play in the deconstruction of Arsene Wenger’s work over the last few years. Fabregas and van Persie, the club’s fulcrums in midfield and attack, were constantly prevented by injury from developing a partnership that might have led to titles and them reconsidering their hastiness in wanting to leave. Many of these injuries were the result of tough tackles tailored for Arsenal’s perceived flimsiness (Diaby, Eduardo) or natural wear and tear (Fabregas’s hamstrings have all the makings of a chronic problem ).

However, more worrying have been the “mystery injuries” that have claimed large chunks of Tomas Rosicky’s, Thomas Vermaelen’s and Jack Wilshere’s careers; in each case, a standard and relatively minor initial diagnosis was somehow enlarged under the care of Arsenal’s medical staff into a head-scratching situation that required multiples surgeries and incredulously long absences. Rosicky’s simple hamstring injury ended up keeping him out for eighteen months, and Vermaelen’s three-month Achilles injury prevented him from playing for an entire season. In Wilshere’s case, Arsenal initially failed to determine that he needed surgery and confidently predicted his stress fracture would heal within six weeks. Who can tell whether their tardiness in sending him for the surgery he eventually had to undergo in October led to the further complications that arose in January and April, and that eventually required a second surgery on his knee? Wenger has now predicted his return in October (almost a year later), but given Arsenal’s incompetency or deliberately misleading information thus far, there should be no guarantee attached to his words.

The apparent misdiagnosis of Jack Wilshere’s injury by the Arsenal medical staff, coupled with the infuriating fact that it is only at Arsenal that so many injury situations seem to develop into career-threatening crises harming both player and team, should at the very least be prompting internal scrutiny. It is understandable that Arsene Wenger wants to protect his players and staff by presenting a unified front to the outside world, but that shouldn’t preclude him from conducting the urgent review of Arsenal’s set-up that is required to maintain excellence and is often dependent on the pressure exerted by external opinion. Wenger stoutly defended Pat Rice for many years, and frequently laments how “everyone has an opinion and everyone thinks they’re right”, but a thorough inquiry would be the only way to clear the suspicion hanging over yet another facet of the club’s operations.

Manchester City recently conducted a fascinatingly detailed feature with BBC (http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/football/18887653) about their methodology for player injuries and injury prevention. That kind of open and accountable ethos has not existed around Arsenal’s communication of Rosicky, Vermaelen and Wilshere’s injuries, and one can only hope that is not because they were either in the dark about the problem or unwittingly guilty of mistakes they’d rather not disclose.

One thing is for sure: if any more of Arsenal’s players disappear for a similarly unfathomable length of time, it will be increasingly hard to put it down to coincidence.

4 thoughts on “Arsenal’s “mystery injuries”

  1. My favorite memory of one of these unexplained injuries was when Ashley Cole and Clichy both got the same (rare) injury on the same foot early in the 2006 season. The best part about this was when Wenger utilized Flamini to hold up the left-back, which he did a fine job with I might add. I was actually dissapointed when Cole came back (or rather walked back into the first team) and kicked Flamini onto the bench when he did all the hard work for the season.

    We’ve really missed someone of his caliber in the past few seasons to really plug the gap(s).

  2. I just looked up Clichy’s injury timeline after suffering the foot injury you spoke of, as I didn’t realise that Arsenal’s medical mysteries began as far back as 2006. He too faced many questions during rehab that the club couldn’t help him answer, eventually underwent surgery that they had put off for a long time and seems to have suffered more than he should.

    I actually trace a lot of Arsenal’s recent problems to the point Flamini left the club. He had become such an important, clever player for the team, made Cesc feel comfortable on the pitch and was one of his closest friends off it, and his departure began the trend of Arsenal losing young players after just one or two promising seasons (inc. Hleb, Adebayor, Fabregas, Nasri). It is worse to think that the team containing Hleb, Flamini, Rosicky and Fabregas had come so close to achieving so much in the season before those first two left, and might have done so the following season had they stayed together instead of having their heads turned by money and supposedly “bigger” clubs. The feeling of regret is mutual, as Flamini and Hleb went on to suffer from that other Arsenal pattern of players’ struggling to maintain their careers on an upward curve once separated from Wenger’s care and management. In fact, it is sad to see how far Flamini and Hleb have fallen given how awe-inspiringly transformed they were when playing for Wenger and Arsenal. Together club and player had everything, but divided…

    As easy as it is for Arsenal fans to stay stuck in the past, Wenger is demonstrating how keen he is to move on with his recent transfer activity. Time for fresh blood and a new era, and it finally feels refreshing and exciting to be an Arsenal fan once again.

  3. While it does feel refreshing and exciting to be an Arsenal fan once again, it also feels like deja vu. This is exactly why just about every Arsenal fan ends up living in the past – especially in the better half of last decade.

    I can’t agree with you more on your point with Flamini and Francesc. While Cesc did manage to get himself going after Flamini’s departure, Flamini couldnt. Moreover, our replacements didn’t exactly fair too well either – Rosicky and Diaby with the injuries, Gilberto leaving and no one to really support and take leadership in the midfield like how Arteta does it right now.

    Off late, people have complained about the depth of our defense, but come to thing of it, our mid-field was never too strong either. It simply rested upon a host of 19 to 23 year old’s with the likes of Walcott, Song, Ramsey, Nasri and Fabregas (the two hardly ever played together). Only Arshavin stands out but even he couldn’t keep his form going for too long. So I really like what I hear (and what you’ve already blogged about) about the things to come at Arsenal for this coming season.

    • Yeah. Cazorla and Giroud will hopefully add to the sort of determination that we saw in Arteta’s play last season and which has its weight in gold (I particularly recall the league match against City at the Emirates last season in which Arsenal dominated and Arteta shone until he finally sealed the deal with a thumping 30-yard strike with a minute to go). I firmly believe players with a well-developed personality and will of their own have something valuable on the pitch others don’t. Arshavin definitely had it when he first arrived, Arteta still does and Cazorla and Giroud – because of their unusual backstories (Giroud played in Ligue 2 until very recently) promise to bring more of the same intangible value.

      The more players with an untainted mental mindset the better, because the complacency around Arsenal seems to snag even the most individual characters upon arrival and pull them down a peg or two. Witness Arshavin’s decline, and how Gervinho began trying to pass the ball into the net from almost the first friendly he played. Like Arsenal, he has since struggled to score goals when it mattered.

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