Fatigue. Injuries. Suspensions. These all become dirty words in the business-end of a season. As each and every point becomes more and more valuable, the health and fitness of players become more and more important.
As Arsenal have seen in recent years, a lack of depth in just one area can lead to a dramatic change of fortune. Arsène Wenger has a big squad at his disposal that is chock full of internationals and world class players. But what happens when that inevitable injury or ill-timed sending off occurs?
Question: How do you think Arsenal's depth chart looks going into the final three months of the season?
Although a strong team performance meant the team pulled through with a win against Sunderland and three points to add to the tally, that weekend showed how cruel the game of football can be. We are a pre-game injury niggle and two yellow cards away from playing one of our young attacking midfielders at right back. Though much credit has to be given to Ramsey and Sagna. Both players bravely held their own playing in positions that were not in their forte and our makeshift defense proved their worth by not conceding a goal even though we were down to 10 men for the last 20 minutes. Despite the heroic performance, I think what happened shows how the squad is lacking depth in defense.
Yes, we did just sign a Spanish international not too long ago but with Arsenal these days, it seems that when you solve one problem, you run into five more stumbling blocks. I will admit that when I learnt Djourou and Chamakh were leaving on loan last month, I thought we would be bringing in players to replace them. Neither had played any league matches this season but I always thought Djourou was a perfectly capable fourth-choice centre back we could rely on if need be. And judging by the past couple of seasons, that need had indeed arisen. Djourou’s departure, however, could mean we might see Ignasi Miquel get some more playing time this season.
Monreal’s acquisition has led me to feel less worried about the left back position. Santos’ loan deal means that both he and a fit Gibbs will be duking it out for first choice for the rest of the season. I do think the manager sees Gibbs as the long term heir to the left back throne with Monreal providing guidance, capable cover and competition to the young injury-prone Englishman for the next few years. Although some might say that we are short in the position because of Gibbs’ injury history, it is important to remember Vermaelen can also provide cover there if needed.
Jack Wilshere’s return this season has certainly added a new dimension to our midfield. Together with Arteta and Cazorla, the trio has inspired some of the best moments this season. Despite this, several questions still remain when it comes to depth in the middle of the park. I do still think we are in need of a proper replacement for Alex Song. Arteta has done very well in taking over much of the defensive duties in the midfield this season and had featured in almost every match until his recent lay off. It is important that he is rested and that there is someone capable to replace him during his time off. Whether it is through a new signing or by deploying players like Coquelin or Ramsey in the role, rotation is key so as not to risk another injury to the vice-captain. His leadership on and off the pitch is an invaluable asset that we cannot afford to lose.
It is also important that fellow Spaniard, Cazorla, is afforded some time off. Despite this being his first season in English football, he has featured in the most number of games of all our players so far this season and has also featured for Spain during international breaks. Without proper rotation and rest, there is always a fear of burnout.
It is important to note that four midfielders in our current squad have experienced long-term injury lay offs when taking into account squad depth – Diaby, Rosicky, Ramsey and Wilshere. Diaby has especially struggled to return to full fitness and it is difficult to rely on him even if he has shown glimpses of what he is capable of (Liverpool). Similarly, we have hardly seen Rosicky feature this season. Ramsey’s performances as a defensive midfielder lately have been very encouraging and the Welshman himself said he was relishing the new opportunity. He always seems to have the right attitude and I think with time could prove to be the valuable utility player the squad needs.
Our forward line this season has not been the source of as much worry as seasons past. Gervinho has returned to the side after his exploits with the Ivory Coast in the AFCON. It is also a relief that Walcott reaffirmed his commitment to the club by signing a new contract in January. There seems to be a group effort when it comes to scoring goals this season. Giroud, Podolski and Walcott (all in double figures) have scored 45 goals in all competitions between them. The new boys, Podolski and Giroud, have also helped take some of the pressure off Oxlade-Chamberlain this season which he wasn’t afforded during his first season at the club. Arshavin also seems to be part of the picture and the Russian can be employed anywhere in the attacking half if needed.
We started off the season with Mannone in goal and I have to say he had impressed me until Szczesny’s return. Although Fabianski has been out injured for what seems like forever, I have not been very worried about depth in this area as we also have the young Damian Martinez on the sidelines. Let’s hope that it stays that way for the rest of the season.
Overall, I feel that we might be short in a few areas (defensive midfield and defense primarily) considering we are still in 3 competitions - the league, FA Cup and Champions League.
However, recent performances such as those we saw from Sagna and Ramsey at Sunderland do show that we have players that are capable of adapting based on needs that may arise in the next three months.
Zara has outlined all of the major issues with squad depth very well but there is one place where I disagree and that's in the keeper spot. I am not at all convinced by Mannone and Fabianski, even as temporary backups to Szczesny. Both are among the most error prone keepers in the League and Mannone already has two errors that lead to goals this season. Meanwhile Fabianski is sorely lacking in first team fitness and showed some real rust in the 2-2 draw with Man U yesterday as he captained the Arsenal U-21 side. I'm probably the only Arsenal fan on the planet who is worried about the keeper spot but there you have it, I am, and those are my reasons.
Given that Arsenal spent the final 30 minutes against Sunderland with Aaron Ramsey at right back and Bacary Sagna in central defense, I think it's fair to say that Arsenal's squad depth is not as strong as it could or should be. Going into January, many of us hoped that the squad might be reinforced with a few new players; but as the transfer window slammed shut, we saw Marouane Chamakh and Johan Djourou -- admittedly not vital pieces in the first team setup -- leave on loans, while the only player coming in was deadline day transfer Nacho Monreal. This one arrival signaled both that Kieran Gibbs' injury was worse than initially suspected, and that Andre Santos' time at the club had probably come to an end. Sure enough, Andre Santos was shortly off on season-long loan to Brazilian side Gremio.
So that's three players out and one in for a club with real concerns about depth to begin with. Injuries to two of our remaining three proven center halves left Arsène Wenger playing fullbacks out of position against the Black Cats purely because of a lack of players. Arsenal's injury record the past few seasons, especially for defenders, has been woeful, so the decision to loan Djourou was questionable, and has indeed come back to haunt the manager. And with Nacho cup-tied in Champions League, we're faced with a fitness race for Vermaelen to return, only to play out of position at Bayern Munich.It's not that I disagree with Tim regarding Arsenal's lack of quality reserve goalkeepers, it's just that at the moment we have some rather more pressing matters. This is triage as applied to football.
Zara's comments are largely spot on, but there are a couple of areas where I disagree with her. Sagna, as a centre back, should not be a stretch for anyone to see or understand. Aerially he is our best full-back, he wins countless headers on the flank and puts his head in the tough places. Zara is completely right when examining the lack of depth defensively.
Arsenal have been significantly better at the back this season than last season. There is a surety and cohesion in the squad that is fantastic, that said, three injuries and a sending off and any team would look sparse. Buying Monreal now just shows one key issue of buying in January... being cup-tied. Defense is definitely where we were in need of players and that has been partially addressed. When you look at the depth chart we have on other issue, Arsenal never replaced Gibbs in the youth set up. Thomas Cruise was let go, and Gibbs moved up to the first team... nobody was brought in to be an out and out left back at the younger level.
The Arsenal midfield is a spot where things get interesting. In the most often deployed formation with Arteta staying deepest, I would say that Arsenal are short on depth. I agree with Zara that a defensive midfielder is needed, I've always been a fan of Lucas Biglia and feel that Wenger could transform Yann M'Vila. That said, a change in tactics could easily repair that fix. Playing a combination of Diaby and Arteta deep with Wilshere, Cazorla and Walcott ahead of them would provide great ball movement. Should Diaby or Arteta be absent you could throw in either of Rosicky (one of our best open field tacklers), Coquelin or Ramsey.
The Arsenal attack appears at first glance to be blessed with depth. When you consider the manner in which they are deployed (with Walcott, Giroud and Podolski on at the same time), there is an issue with depth. There are two subs, Gervinho and maybe Oxlade-Chamberlain, but not much else. This is where a player with the attributes of Nicklas Bendtner could be a serious asset to the club. Maybe, as we've seen a little more recently, Podolski should be held to the bench to provide fresh attacking presence later in a match. Nevertheless with Walcott, Podolski and Giroud on at the same time, Arsenal are a little thin.
The goalkeeping situation has not been a concern for me since Wojciech became our number one. His distribution has continued to improve and he is being pushed by a couple other hungry keepers. The main reason I am not concerned is that a good back four and suitable midfield coverage will limit the amount of shots on goal. If an opponent could not register a shot on goal you could put me in net (I'm being overly dramatic to demonstrate my point)! Also, the cost of bringing in a "top notch" keeper would be far better spent on an outfield player. The focus should be on building a strong defense with adequate midfield coverage, then the club can worry about the rest. That is why the Invincibles were so good, that back four was tough for any team to play against.
As is the case every year, and with every team, the answer to this question is one that will change with every match and every international break. This Arsenal club, similar to the ones in recent memory, has gone through the same issues testing their squad depth with injuries and loan spells. Zara has done an excellent job breaking down the depth position by position so I will only touch on two sub-topics.
Out of both domestic cup competitions and with potentially only two more matches to play in the Champions League (hopefully more) Arsenal have a minimum of games left to play this season and that should bode well for the depth of the squad. Arsenal should now have a better time coping with their schedule the rest of the way to allow proper rest to the players who feature regularly.
At the moment, I feel Arsenal have strong depth everywhere except for along the back line. Injuries have played a huge factor at both the central and flank positions and it appears that will be the case throughout the remainder of the season. With Nacho Monreal only available in league play, he should be good to go for the remaining league fixtures as well as Bacary Sagna on the other side. However, Arsenal’s issue the rest of the season will be having two of Per Mertesacker, Laurent Koscielny and Thomas Vermaelen available as well as coverage for Monreal in the Champions League matches. Francis Coquelin could be the key to the season with his versatility to play a number of positions. He may find himself in any of the positions along the back line should Arsenal need the coverage.
The views expressed above do not necessarily reflect those of Arsenal Football Club or Arsenal Media Group.Copyright 2013 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source 26 Feb 2013