…and Arshavin’s little cameos also worth keeping an eye on

One more player to keep a close watch on is Andrei Arshavin. Any player that gifted who also finds and starts burning reserves of determination and commitment is bound to shine, and Arshavin sent out a positive signal by electing to stay at Arsenal – despite being out of contract in 2013 – in the face of positive overtures from wealthy Russian suitors in preseason. He has since provided a string of important and eye-catching moments that helped Arsenal’s cause, and proved he still has a valuable part to play for the club – whether from the bench or starting matches. One was the cross that led to the winning goal in the last ten minutes against QPR, another his positive performance in the 7-5 comeback against Reading in the Capital Cup, and he also weighed in with the assist for Santi Cazorla’s damage-limitation goal against Manchester United that was important from a psychological standpoint. He then created the penalty that gave Arsenal a chance to win the match against Fulham yesterday afternoon that was subsequently passed up by Mikel Arteta. If Martin Jol’s allegation that Arshavin deliberately struck the ball against Fulham right-back Riether to get the penalty is true, it will only add to the estimation of some that he is a true original, a player whose quick thinking and off-pitch humour and interests manifest charmingly in his play. While it is a shame that his Arsenal career has not gone as well as some may have hoped after he announced himself with four goals in a single match against Liverpool, there may be yet be a final chapter to the Arshavin story waiting to be played out. If he joins Wilshere, Cazorla et al in hauling Arsenal up from the abyss they are currently staring at, he will be remembered for more than just fleeting moments of magic and brilliance.

Wilshere’s comeback a cause for real optimism amidst the doom and gloom

If there is one reason for beleaguered Arsenal fans to refrain from completely losing hope over Arsenal’s chances this season, it is the return of Jack Wilshere. His comeback brings more with it than the addition of a very good player, and one who will help Arsenal regain a modicum of the composure in possession that was once their hallmark and was alarmingly bereft in the crazed draw with Fulham yesterday. He also brings qualities of passion and fearlessness to his play that have too often been missing from Arsenal’s players in recent times. In the 2-1 defeat to Manchester United, there was nothing more exasperating than the sense that Arsenal’s players – apart from a brief ten-minute spell at the start of the second half – were too afraid of their opponents to rise to the occasion and play their best football. While they were cautiously passing the ball from side to side near their own goal in the first half, perhaps more worried of making a mistake than of daring to take a positive step forward, there was only one player who remembered what it meant for Arsenal to play Manchester United and what it demanded: when Jack Wilshere wholeheartedly crunched into a tackle on Robin van Persie, he displayed a stirring sense of pride in his club – all the more heart-warming because of how absent it was from his team-mates’ play –  alongside a determination to correct their slide into impotence. It was a lionhearted tackle from a player who may yet become a lion-heart for his club and provide the missing spark of inspiration to jolt a group of players paralysed by fear into action. Their performances in recent weeks may have understandably led them to privately lower their sights but Wilshere was having none of it, talking this week of how Arsenal may need “a miracle to win the Premier League”, but they now needed to treat each fixture “as a cup game” as his club are too big to abandon the hunt for the big trophies. That tackle and that determined statement from a player who bristles with pride and commitment were rare, and significant, moments of optimism in the troubled last few weeks for Arsenal and throw into stark relief just what a gem of a footballer and personality he could be for the club.

At this stage, where his devotion has also not been tempered by the more career-focussed considerations of older players, one also detects that he will not let the failure of many at Arsenal to match his quality and commitment lead to a change of heart on his long-term future. For the time being, he will do everything in his power to haul Arsenal up to where they need to be and, if that crunching tackle and those stirring statements were just the beginning of a long and fruitful re-acquaintance with Arsenal, its fans may have reason to look to the future with a little more excitement and hope than they had previously thought.

…while Wenger mixes unswerving faith with welcome dose of pragmatism

It is for the opposite reasons to those spelt out in my post about Alex Ferguson below (http://talksportblog.com/2012/08/20/ferguson-driven-silly-by-citys-relentless-spending/) that Arsene Wenger grows in stature year upon year. Which other manager sticks to his principles quite as bravely in the face of an overwhelming chorus of criticism, and in the conviction that football has so much more to offer its exponents and supporters than just a glittering piece of silverware? As Alex Song left, he was talking as much about what it would mean for his strategy as he did about how they had endeavoured to give him a meaningful education: “Part of our club is to influence people’s lives in a positive way.” If this also means demonstrating to them and supporters that the onus is on coaches to put in the hours to develop their players, rather than risk financial meltdown through adopting a model that no-one in the real world abides by, then so be it. Arsenal have slipped as a result of his determination, but there is no other elite manager who has even attempted to deal with the football-specific problems he faces every day. Ferguson’s instinctive reaction to the first sign of danger was to panic-spend on the best striker currently in the Premier League in a way that financially burdens his club; Wenger has instead made brave sacrifices because he wishes to protect a long-term vision of his club’s prosperity that doesn’t even enter the thinking of his counterparts.

However, today I want to instead applaud the more pragmatic measures Wenger is taking in the knowledge that a long-term vision can only be fulfilled if short-term goals are accomplished. Arsenal must find themselves in the Champions League places again at the end of the season to avoid permanent divorce with their fans, and Wenger has realised (surprisingly, some would say) that this is threatened currently by the lack of requisite quality in his midfield. His remark that Arsenal were maybe “one creative player short” after the Sunderland game tied in with the opinion of fans that the club still needs to compensate for the departure of Van Persie by adding more quality to their team. A player of Nuri Sahin’s reported characteristics and discipline will add to Arsenal’s technical excellence, and take some of the burden of responsibility in that area off Cazorla’s shoulders (as of Monday night, Arsenal were still locked in negotiations with Madrid over aspects of the transfer, and overcoming any stumbling blocks could prove a ‘swing’ factor to whether they maintain their residency in the top four this year). Equally encouragingly, Wenger is alert to the threat of falling short in defence should injury strike once again and has promised that Arsenal are trying to bring in “maybe one more defender.”

More generally, amid the doom and gloom, there are flashes of hope that Arsenal fans can justifiably entertain. Wenger has finally adopted a more pre-emptive, necessarily selfish approach to culling bad influences from the club by selling one of his more ungrateful students in Alex Song. Spending on new blood also means that, for the first time in a while, important players in the team have not yet had their heads turned by more glitzy proposals from other clubs and are fully behind Wenger’s plans. Cazorla in particular has already voiced his opinion in various matters concerning Arsenal, and his engaged presence bears all the hallmarks of a player with the ability to develop into the inspiring general that Wenger has been missing for years (mainly as a result of player disloyalty). It is also inevitable that a leading player like Jack Wilshere will, despite his best intentions, have his loyalty tested by subliminal doubts in the wake of another star’s departure from Arsenal. Negative thinking is contagious, breeds negative performances and thus contributes to the vicious cycle where players eventually have their doubts confirmed and want out of the club. Cazorla has happily arrived with exactly the opposite mindset, and should his commitment translate to success on the pitch, it will provide the earnestly loyal Wilshere with the reason he is looking for to banish those lingering doubts and play wholeheartedly for his boyhood club once again.

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.