Do Arsenal have enough competent bodies to sustain a real title challenge?
A mixed week in Arsenal world has made two things abundantly clear.
Firstly, If this team can keep its spine intact for most or all of the season, a title challenge of genuine viability is in the offing. Secondly, dipping much deeper into the wider squad’s resources wouldn’t bode well for that attempt to topple Man City, given the paucity of quality and form therein.
The league cup disaster (probably more due to the injuries than the result), showed just how much certain previously reliable faces have massively suffered through a lack of regular first team exposure. Debuchy and Gibbs are both undermining the satisfaction felt at strength in depth at full-back. The Frenchman cuts a particularly disconsolate figure at the moment, his Arsenal career in danger of being ended all too quickly as a result of last season’s injuries and the opportunities they presented to Bellerin, who seized them with both hands.
The current shortage of quality in central midfield with so many injured was also clear to see, heaping an even greater burden of responsibility on the Coq-zorla axis. It’s ironic that the area of our squad best stocked in terms of numbers should be among the most vulnerable – with a whole host of ‘like a new signing’ moments waiting to happen…and hopefully before any more casualties of war.
The other evident league cup observation was even more predictable. With so many of the kids who might otherwise have been League Cup shoe-ins on loan, and others away at the u17 World Cup, it was no surprise to see some of them look out of their depth. Save the odd glimpse, there was no-one who you would want troubling Premier League statisticians any time soon. In the cases of Akpom, Zelalem, and Maitland-Niles who are flourishing elsewhere, loaning them out is a risk worth taking. But I hope there are emergency re-call clauses for Gnabry and Sanogo, who have seen less pitch time at West Brom and Ajax then they would have done in North London.
Of course, until the weekend, the League cup had also given us our only meaningful glimpses of the Costa Rican loan ranger, Joel Campbell (get out while you can!). Again, as against Spurs, he showed admirable work rate but a comparative absence of quality. The only real positive from either appearance was the tendency to ‘hide’ that we saw against Southampton last year has definitely gone.
This disappointing showing and lack of any hint of form or goals since the group stages of the 2014, combined with the opportunity of injuries to almost every other option for the right side of midfield, prompted Wenger to unusually bluntly give a ‘now or never’ assessment of Campbell’s Arsenal future.
And, to his credit, the player responded. Against a Swansea team slightly out of form, but with plenty of threats, his defensive work rate was allied with a bit more forward thrust, a few more glimpses of the quality he had shown for Olympiakos and his national side. And ultimately he was rewarded with a very nicely taken goal, a moment that clearly meant a great deal to the player.
Given his status as effectively 6th choice right winger, it sounds a bit fairy tale in isolation, but here is a guy with three years experience of loan experience as a regular in the French, Spanish and Greek top divisions. Not to mention 55 international caps and a good showing at a World Cup Finals tournament. While there has been little to shout about over the last 16 months, Campbell has shown enough over his career to suggest that the potential to contribute on the higher stage is there, and there have never been any suggestions of a lack of application.
His most recent audition for an elevation of status within the first team squad showed much to build on, and he will be needed in the immediate future. And needed to continue his recent rate of improvement.
With a visit to Munich on the horizon and the quietly impressive tiny totts coming round for a Sunday teatime tête-à-tête, Arsenal can’t carry any passengers before the next international break. Any positive result against Bayern and three points against Spurs would have the team in good shape, but both must be achieved without any returning reinforcements. It has got to the point where Arsenal just can’t afford any more of their front six falling foul of the annual injury curse. Or we’ll be relying on those very youngsters that Wenger defined as ‘not ready’ after the midweek collapse at Hillsborough.
Arsenal’s season is very finely poised. If the team can stay free of further injuries and retain their current form, the sky is the limit. But another bad week with injuries could derail the entire season. Ozil’s October brilliance appears to inspiring greater confidence throughout the team, but at present it is the physical state of the players, rather than the mental that is the primary concern.
Rabbits feet, heather and anything else you can think of at the ready…