‘And so it is, just like you said it would be…’. Without wishing to speculate, it wouldn’t be inappropriate if Damian Rice’s lyrics, accompanied by their mournful tone, were running through Arsene’s mind this morning.
After a summer of almost every Arsenal fan in the world stating the need for a defensive midfielder to cover/compete with last season’s breakthrough star, the news post-West Brom is utterly predictable.
With Francis Coquelin now ruled out until late January (at the earliest…this is Arsenal after all), the wafer thin nature of the squad, already highlighted by the annual injury merry-go-round, is stretched to breaking point. And at its weakest point.
Every Gooner and his/her dog has been presented with ample evidence over the last two years that Mikel Arteta and his barely functioning calf muscles have deteriorated beyond the point of usefulness except as a late substitute to protect leads. His disastrous cameo against The Baggies only served to prove that he can no longer be relied upon. Flamini is rather more robust and able to get around the park, but has his own injury issues, and is positionally very naive, despite all his experience.
Ultimately, as alternatives to le Coq, Arsene decided to start the season with a perennially injured water carrier whose legs have well and truly gone, and a half-decent utility player whose pointing and shouting skills outweigh his defensive capacity. We all knew this was a disaster waiting to happen. And now it has happened.
The other struggles this season so far have mostly had mitigating factors that at least partially absolve the manager. Impact injuries in training or matches. The Copa-America forced absence of Alexis. The lack of any decent strikers changing clubs (bar the £50m for Martial after Arsenal were told he wasn’t for sale). Hitting the woodwork more than anyone else. The turf exploding for our first penalty since February. Mike Dean and friends. But along with Champions League selection complacency and taking Walcott to the Carling Cup game against Sheffield Wednesday, the trust placed in Arteta and Flamini have been mistakes that didn’t need to come to fruition to be identified.
At his press conference on Monday, Wenger tried to paint a rosy picture, again citing Calum Chambers as a potential defensive midfielder, before conceding that it may be necessary to dip into the transfer market in January. Given Arteta’s inability to play more than once a month this becomes a no-brainer with Coquelin’s potentially serious injury, but that is a question for another day.
A lot suddenly rests on the shoulders of prospective global hero, Mathieu Flamini, with the slightly vain hope that he will magically re-discover the form of late 2007. Given that his durability is in question, and the loss of the first of our run of ‘winnable’ fixtures, it seems a lot to expect him to get us through to the new year, particularly with tough games at home to Man City and away to Southampton sandwiched either side of Christmas Day.
Suddenly, yet another Arsenal title challenge has been undermined by the curse of November, like a more seriously injured version of seasons past under George Graham or with Wenger’s first side.
But as we know, all good ‘end of times’ stories provide a redemptive epilogue.
Can Arsenal limp through to 2016 without any more significant injuries? Can we stay within touching distance of the top of the table? Will Le Boss finally open the magic moth-filled wallet in January?
We have been running out of warm bodies for a good while now, but if more casualties can be avoided, this team still has enough to stay undefeated and maybe even finish the year on top. The returns of Ramsey, the Ox and maybe Theo will be pivotal, as will the continued welfare of Ozil and Alexis.
As ever, another week in North London ends with more questions than answers and with doubts outweighing hopes, particularly with the noisy neighbours on a good run. But lest we forget, even with half a team missing, Mesut Ozil is consistently playing the role of saviour, extending his own consecutive assists record. So the final question for this week is “Can our record signing drag us through the bleak winter and to the light?”.