Arsenal began the 2013/14 campaign with hope, confidence, excitement… and soon injuries to a number of key players. Those injuries combined with the opening day loss quickly turned optimism into concern.
But it turns out that the squad has dealt with the rash of injuries in impressive fashion and sit at the top of the Premier League table one-quarter of the way into the season.
Some important players who had picked up injuries, such as Mikel Arteta, Bacary Sagna, Santi Cazorla have already returned to action. Meanwhile Theo Walcott, Lukas Podolski, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are still waiting in the wings, but look set to return over the course of the next month.
But as the injury list continues to shorten Arsène Wenger could be faced with a new malady: a selection headache. We turned to our panel of supporters to ask how they think the manager might select his squads when the wounded return to action.
Question: How will the Arsenal starting XI look when players who have been out long-term return from injury?
First, someone else will get injured. I'm sorry, but it's just something we need to accept. Ironically, this will ease some of the squad selection issues that Arsène Wenger has. One of the UK papers ran a story showing Arsenal with the following midfield players: Flamini, Ramsey, Wilshere, Rosicky, Cazorla, Ozil, Gnabry, Diaby, Podolski, Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Arteta. I disagree that all of them are midfielders, as I feel that Gnabry and Podolski are forwards, but that is still eight midfielders.
For me, the key to what is next is finding the right balance between who is on form, which players have a good on-field knowledge of each other, and who possesses the skills and attributes needed to win matches.
There are four formations that Arsenal can use while Podolski is still out. In each case Arsenal is playing a 4-3-3 with the left winger withdrawn into the midfield. As soon as Podolski is back he goes into the left wing and Arsenal become a 4-3-3 proper again. You can disagree all you want, but for me Podolski, Giroud and Walcott are three names at the top of the team sheet every week.
The defensive set-up is the first I will analyze. This is an arrangement I would use against a team like Napoli in Italy. The idea is that when Napoli counterattack, Arsenal can break it down and then inflict pain on the scoresheet. A team like Napoli will send Callejon, Insigne, Higuain and Hamsik forward; if Arsenal can stop that attack and move the ball forward then Arsenal would have a strong man advantage counter attacking the counterattack; “this is chess not checkers.”
Flamini in the holding role, with Ramsey and Ozil ahead of him. Rosicky would make up the withdrawn left winger because of his ability to run back to help break up any attacking play by Napoli and quickly transition to offense.
The ball control set up is to beat teams that do not play strong possession football (Sunderland, Norwich, Stoke, Cardiff). These are teams that Arsenal will wear down with lots of passing and possession. Arteta comes in to the holding role as a fulcrum. His ability to swing the ball from wing to wing is essential in a possession match. Ramsey would be ahead of him with Ozil and Wilshere. Wilshere would play on the left side of the midfield, but much closer to the middle than Rosicky would. This allows Arsenal to move the ball between Aaron, Jack and Mesut going forward.
Should the middle be jammed, then the ball is moved back to Arteta and swung out to Gibbs racing up the left wing or to Walcott (or Gnabry depending on how long Theo is out) who could cut in and shoot or cross to Giroud.
The counter attacking set up is designed to break down teams that play with a lot of possession where Arsenal need pace and strong tackling to regain possession and start back up the field. Flamini would be the holding midfielder with Rosicky on the left, Wilshere and Ramsey at the attacking head of the midfield. Arsenal would rely on Flamini and Rosicky to break up attacks and then Wilshere and Ramsey would move the ball forward while being supported by Rosicky.
The last set up is a more generic set up. It is a formation that can play more than one system and adapt as the match changes. This is the squad I would deploy against teams like Everton and Marseille.
Arteta would be the holding midfielder, closely supported by Ramsey (or Wilshere). The forward two people are Cazorla (wide and left) and Ozil (right behind Giroud). Ramsey (or Wilshere) would rely on his engine to cover a lot of midfield terrain and Arteta would swing the ball between Cazorla on one side and Walcott (of Gnabry) on the other. If Arsenal went direct and up the middle then Ozil is right there.
I have made two assumptions on what comes next. I have put Ramsey in each formation because he is on form, and with his engine he creates stability as he does not need to be subbed over 90 minutes. The tactical advantage is Wenger can use his subs to create other attacking and defending combinations around the pitch. Second, I am not looking beyond Napoli on December 11th because that is one month forward away and by then all injured players (minus Oxlade-Chamberlain and Diaby) could be back.
Yes, injuries are part and parcel of the sport, and yes, it does feel as though Arsenal seem to pick up more injuries, at least more long-term injuries, than other sides in the Premiership. The rash of injuries coming early in the season was weathered better than I had hoped, as Arsenal kept flying high, at least until the dull draw at the Hawthorns with West Brom. Which, to me, was borne of having to deal with an even thinner squad. Arsène Wenger was forced to play a largely unchanged side for several weeks, apart from the League Cup, meaning the same players were being overworked, many of whom also had to take part in international matches squeezed in. So we saw the first tame Arsenal display since the opening disappointment against Villa.
We are going to see some of those key injured players finally returning after months out. But to me, the most high-profile returnee since the start of the campaign was Santi Cazorla. And I cannot stress enough just how much I had been anticipating the diminutive Spaniard's reinstatement, simply because of the possibilities in the air with another world-class creative midfielder joining an attack guided by the unparalleled vision of Mesut Ozil. I'm chomping at the bit to see the two of them make things happen in the coming weeks.
This brings me to my first disagreement with Morgan's take. Once the injuries let up the central attacking midfield role will be home to our shiny new signing Ozil for the long term. Arsenal will be playing the same type of set up: four at the back, two withdrawn central midfielders with Ozil ahead, Giroud at the top with wingers either side of him. So when Lukas Podolski does return, he comes right back into the side... ahead of Santi Cazorla? I'm sorry, I just can't see it. Santi won't displace our Turkish-German as No. 10 -- but he has to play.
No disrespect to Podolski, he is a remarkable for his delivery from the wide areas and his finishing that hammer of a left foot. But he is the prototypical direct wing player. Our attacks will likely be far more versatile and dangerous with the interplay of Ozil and Cazorla. I agree that Theo Walcott is practically a shoo-in on the right, as his pace and finishing make him an extremely dangerous weapon to deploy. But I can't see a way that Podolski claims a regular place ahead of Santi.
I do think that Arsène Wenger is open to rotating his squad based on the opposition. But it has been a hallmark of Wenger's reign that Arsenal do not typically focus on tactical shifts to counter the next adversary, preferring to concentrate on playing our own game optimally. So while it is fair enough to project Arteta and Flamini as a pair of holding midfielders against the more swashbuckling sides we will encounter, the likelihood of Arsenal adopting a number of settled lineups based on the opponent is virtually nil.
Arsène will, rightly or wrongly, pick the best 11 players at his disposal for each Premier League and Champions League fixture. We've seen Arsène become more open to making adjustments in the last year, such as benching Vermaelen and Szczesny for the away leg against Bayern last season, but he is still very much the same manager.
And now that he has a settled, experienced squad playing football the way he wants to play, that is no bad thing.
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