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.