There’s only been one word on everyone’s lips this week at Cannon Towers this week: injuries.
We spent approximately three times as long discussing that very topic on this Tuesday’s podcast as Arsenal did playing proper football against Norwich City* yet for me the crockings of Alexis Sanchez and Santi Cazorla, while worrying/frustrating/predictable (delete as appropriate), were not at the forefront of my thinking this week.
(*Our podcast is only 45 minutes long after production magic, so make of that what you will!)
Instead, I found myself thinking about the injury to Laurent Koscielny, the introduction of Gabriel, the consequential loss of three points, and wondering: was it avoidable?
Clearly I don’t mean Koscielny’s injury itself. A short term injury caused by a sudden impact with a Norwich City player (the first of three in the same game, I’d add), well, it’s just bad luck if you’re an optimist or the kind of thing where you’d expect to get a few of over the course of a season if you’re a pessimist. Either way, it’s not predictable or more importantly preventable.
No, I mean the corollary of bringing on a player who has only one start since the 24th October, in what was hardly a fantastic display of defending away at Bayern Munich, and who hasn’t registered a single minute off the substitutes bench for either club or country since either. Not even in the Capital One Cup!
There are a few things we know: Gabriel had not played competitively anywhere for over a month; Gabriel, like any centre back, needs games to stay sharp; Gabriel was at fault for the Norwich goal.
There are also a few we can speculate: without that goal, Norwich couldn’t have sat back so much and would have been forced to open up more in search of a goal; without that goal, Arsenal may not have needed to score again; without that goal, we could be two points better off and consequently joint top of the league*.
*Joint top of the league doesn’t exist, clearly, but the media seem to think it does, and it sounds better here, so I’m running with it!
So what could have been done?
Arsene clearly favours playing his first choice centre back pairing whenever they are available, and there’s no doubting that this is the best way to generate the best possible defence in any one game. But there are different options when it comes to managing your resources over a season.
Centre backs rarely need to be rotated from a fatigue point of view, and they’re also rarely substituted either on or off as a result of the obvious benefits from developing an understanding and experience of playing together. But should you give them more game time so that if and when the worst happens, you have someone who can come in and cover with minimum disruption?
It’s hardly an exact science.
Learning from our friends
If we look around us in the table, we can see two quite different records. Only two sides have better defences than our own, namely United and (somewhat bizarrely) Tottenham.
Spurs’ solidity is built on some fairly traditional foundations – Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld have played every single minute of every Premier League match this season – and it’s not only their central pairing which has been consistent. Kyle Walker has missed just seven minutes of game time while in front and behind them Erik Dier and Hugo Lloris have sat out one game apiece through suspension and injury respectively.
My other half is pretty chirpy about the state of their defence this season, yet the real moment of truth will come when one of the two Belgians is forced to miss a game or two. Wimmer has hardly inspired confidence in the sprinkling of minutes he’s been afforded in lesser competitions.
Meanwhile, United have struggled to field the same defence in any consecutive matches, with Chris Smalling an ever present but a rotating cast of pretenders alongside him. Rojo, Jones, McNair and Blind have all taken their turn alongside the England man, yet United maintain the best backline record of any side in the top division.
And that’s including the three goals we put past them in a single game!
Perhaps the most interesting example comes if you glance quite a distance further down the table to Mourinho’s Chelsea. Teehee!
Gary Cahill, John Terry and Kurt Zouma have all played substantial numbers of minutes in their dismal start to the season, as Tracksuit Man has tinkered and tampered with their minds as well as their starting positions.
Applying to our own scenario
There doesn’t seem to be a right or wrong answer here. Just because Gabriel’s lack of game time surely contributed to his mistake which ultimately cost us two points, it doesn’t necessarily make it an error to have managed the centre backs the way we have this season.
Rotating your centre backs might mean that you don’t notice a big difference if one of them is then unavailable for a game or a stretch of games. However, it potentially reduces the level at which your defence is able to operate in an important game compared to if you had a regular pairing who play almost every match.
The important thing is to find a balance between having your best team in optimum form for your biggest games but keeping enough players up to speed to minimise the disruption. And how far do you take that? Should you rotate in your fourth choice centre back too?
Gabriel is a good centre back
In his first season in English football he occasionally dived in too early and sometimes got caught by a more wily forward who had already tested how far the referee in any particular match could be pushed.
In his second, he has looked assured alongside Koscielny, and marginally less so alongside Mertesacker. He simply faces the same issue as Calum Chambers now that our defensive midfield options are diminishing by the day: they are expected to step into the void without a pause despite having had no recent game time.
In my view, that ability to pick up the baton immediately is one which comes with age and experience. Whatever you think of Flamini and Arteta in terms of current fitness and/or quality levels, it’s fairly undeniable that when they do come on (even if only for X minutes!) they come on and perform at their level pretty much from minute one. Lest we forget, it took even the much vaunted Coquelin a few games to hit his peak.
Matthew wrote earlier this week about how some of our younger players aren’t ready to step in when they’re needed, but perhaps the real issue is that it takes them that bit longer to step up, by which time they’re sometimes no longer required. Maybe we need to get better, for those younger players at least, at keeping their eyes in.
History can point the way
Ask any Arsenal fan worth their salt who our central pairing was during the invincible season and they’ll instantly namecheck Kolo Toure and Sol Campbell. Cygan and Keown might have picked up enough appearances to deserve a winners medal, but ultimately our first choice duo made 37 and 35 league appearances respectively.
If your best two centre backs stay fit and available for the majority of the season, then that can go a very long way to securing the title.
And just because your third choice centre back hasn’t been playing doesn’t mean they can’t come in and hit the ground running. Another time, Norwich miss the chance, Gabriel gets his confidence up quicker and slots seamlessly into the side for as long as he’s needed. That type of luck can be the difference between finishing 1st and 2nd come May, but it’s also pretty tough to predict.
So if Koscielny is fit this weekend then of course we start him. The real question is how we can get Gabriel up to speed faster if he’s not.
One to ponder.