It’s a question that can make some people uncomfortable but I think it deserves some consideration.
Many seem to agree that last season crashing out of all three Cups in a short span of time flung the squad into a confidence depriving free fall that the manager could not curtail. It had a massive impact on the players’ psyche, Arsenal’s league position at the end of the season, and quite possibly played a part in some of the summer’s transfers.
I’d suggested at the time and still can’t help but wonder whether the Gunners would have had a better season if they’d not given their all in the Champions League second round tie against Barcelona. As of now and in the years to come, few will remember that Arsenal were the club that came closest to knocking the reigning European Champions out. A much larger number will find the disappointments, to put it mildly, of the last few weeks of the season hard to suppress in their memories.
Now that Arsenal are in three tournaments at the beginning of the second half of the season, a similar question seems rather pertinent. I doubt Wenger, given his competitive nature, will give it serious consideration. Nor do I have any hopes that members of the staff or some of the players will try to reason with the manager on this topic. So I do expect Arsenal to challenge on all fronts but that shouldn’t prevent us from discussing the merits of this question.
Let’s look at Tottenham for a start. They’ve had an impressive League campaign by their standards. Undoubtedly, their relative (and limited I must add) success thus far is based on a number of factors. Adebayor has been the striker Redknapp missed all of last season. Modric didn’t leave in the summer. Bale and Van der Vaart have sustained or improved on their efforts from last season. And so on. But apart from the obvious player and manager related issues, one factor seems to stand out. Tottenham have competed for only one trophy in the first half of the season.
Spurs were knocked out in the first Carling Cup game they played. And the fact that they couldn’t even get through their group in a competition like the Europa League says enough about their efforts in that particular tournament. The impact of this is not immediately obvious but let’s explore this further.
How often have you heard Arsene Wenger complaining about his players lacking sharpness or being tired after the efforts of a midweek tie? The Gunners have played 8 matches in the Champions League this season and their record in the League games immediately following these ties is P8 W3 D1 L4.
It would be naive to put the entire blame of that dismal record on the strains of the Champions League. The first couple of losses against Liverpool and United came under difficult circumstances. Arsenal might have lost those games even if they hadn’t played the qualifiers. Suspensions and transfer related issues were a big factor at that time. But would the result against Spurs have been a little different if the players had an extra 10 percent energy in their tanks with a midweek rest? How about the loss at Blackburn or the home draw with Fulham? It’s not hard to see the Dortmund games took a lot out of the players physically and mentally. We can’t really quantify the impact of that but should we completely deny it?
City or United have not had similar problems in the League but their managers’ attempts at balancing the load with some rotation has clearly failed as is evident from their early departures from the Champions League. Chelsea lost two of their three away games after Champions League encounters. It’s not as bad as Arsenal’s record but it does make a difference at the end of the season.
Another interesting way to look at it is to compare the load on key players. For Arsenal, Van Persie has made 25 appearances so far this season in all competitions. Ramsey and Theo are on 24 while Arteta and Koscielny are one behind that. At United, Nani has clocked up 29 appearances, Jones 28, Evra 26, and Rooney 25. Silva and Aguero have made 28 appearances for City with Yaya Toure and Kompany chipping in with 25 each. For Spurs though, Bale has 21 while Modric and Van der Vaart have 20. Their full-backs and a couple of other fringe players have more but most of their key players have only played in one competition. The difference is not big but it’s undeniable that a breather in just two or three games over half a season can have a substantial impact on a player’s performances and fitness.
It can also be argued that some of the Gunners who have played a fewer number of games have done so in a much shorter period of time as injuries often reduced or completely eliminated the chances for resting players, especially in defence. For instance, Santos made a total of 14 appearances in a very short span of time. In fact, when he got injured against Olympiacos the Brazilian was making his 10th consecutive start in seven weeks. That might not seem like much, but for a guy who probably never played at such intensity regularly, or at least didn’t look like he did, it obviously proved to be a strain his body couldn’t handle.
Now some might argue that appearances in themselves are not a very good stat to use as some of the substitute appearances are very short ones and other counter arguments can be made. I agree. But they do, to an extent, reinforce the point that Spurs have been able to keep their key players fresher than the big teams. How much of an impact that has made is anyone’s guess. I like to think it’s been significant.
Any such discussion would also bring issues like squad depth and rotation to the fore. Broadly speaking I’d want greater depth and a lot more rotation but it’s not as easy as it can sound.
Mancini has had no shortage of funds or squad players but wasn’t able to rotate his players in a manner that they could perform in the Champions League and the Premiership. Last season we saw Spurs struggle in the League when they had to balance it with Europe’s elite club competition. In the past Liverpool too had their share of issues and Dalglish hasn’t found sufficient consistency this season despite a fair bit of rotation. Clearly, it’s not as straightforward as swapping one player for another. That said, I do feel Ferguson has achieved this balance better and more consistently than other managers and that has been one of the integral aspects of his success. But this issue is complex enough to deserve its own discussion at a later date. For now I think it’s safe to say that simply blaming incorrect or insufficient rotation cannot be a valid argument against the manager.
Similarly, squad depth is a tough one to crack. Given the spate of concentrated injuries that Arsenal seem to get, it would be imprudent to assume that buying more players can be a solution. For instance, How many full-backs can one buy? Given the way Coquelin joined the near exhaustive list of injured full-backs at Arsenal, can anyone guarantee that a new January signing will not succumb to the same fate in probably his first match?!
Nevertheless, when one sees players like Park or Benayoun being used so sparingly it does raise valid questions about the depth of the squad at least in terms of the quality available. But quality of players is a really tricky topic. There is no such thing as a proven player. For every Mata there is a Reyes, for every Aguero a Carroll or Torres. Sometimes the same player can be a success and a failure within the same season. The point of course is not that no signing should be made for fear of failure but that fans should not assume a player will succeed if signed. Such assumption driven assertions are the chief cause of opinion-pollution on the internet/media. But I don’t want to get caught up in that discussion right now.
So to come back to the topic of the post, I do broadly agree that better rotation and squad depth can help but these solutions are not as obvious as a cursory analysis would have you believe. I think it’s a challenge every manager grapples with constantly and Wenger does better than most even if it’s far from ideal. With that in mind I don’t see either of these coming to Arsenal’s rescue as far as the performances of the rest of the season are concerned.
It could be that Arsene finds a couple of good deals in the market and it could also happen that the injured players return while few or no others enter the treatment room with serious complaints. In that case Arsenal could very well have a squad to compete on all fronts. But the recent track record just doesn’t fill me with confidence.
Then there is the issue of the trophy drought. Some might think the Gunners can get past the likes of Aston Villa and Milan. After that who knows, the luck of the draw might work in their favour. The Premiership title is out of reach this year but there is hope in the Cups. I don’t deny the possibility but it’s hard to see the odds work out. A couple of poor results in the League due to the travails of midweek games can easily bring back the self-doubt that was so palpable at the end of last season and hasn’t been buried irretrievably deep enough just yet.
Once we put together all these factors – the importance of resting players, the complexities of rotations and squad depths, the psychological impacts of fighting hard for the Cups/losing points in the League, and so on – I strongly believe sacrificing at least one of the Cups would be an astute move for Arsenal.
That’s not to say Wenger should play kids against Milan or Villa and chuck the games. It doesn’t have to be so blatant. All Arsenal need is fractionally lower mental and physical involvement in the Cup ties. The manager can rest one or two players for these games and those who do take the field can play with a nothing to lose attitude. The basic idea is not about throwing games away – although “sacrificing the Cups” does make it sound that way – but about balancing the mental and physical effort being put in. By sacrificing I mean playing with a certain liberated nonchalance – neither frivolous nor intense. And if they do go out of one of the Cups they can raise the level in the other one depending on the draw and the fitness/form factor at that point in time.
For this to materialize everyone at the club would have to have a very clear idea of the priorities for the season. For me that’s finishing in the top four. Everything else is secondary. It’s not a thought that delights me but it does seem like a pragmatic approach given the current circumstances.Follow @goonerdesi