Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Who's to blame for Arsenal's injuries?

In recent weeks much has been said and written about Arsenal’s injury list. Nobody denies that injuries have had an impact on Arsenal’s slide in form. But the question which every man and his dog has an opinion on is who is to blame?

The answer I keep on reading is Arsene Wenger. I simply don’t think the answer is as simple as that.

The first thing worth establishing is that the problem is not nearly as large as it is generally made out to be. People say “it’s the same every season” and it’s simply not true. Last season, Arsenal suffered from relatively few muscle injuries; the season before a similar situation arose, it was just unfortunate that so many of these injuries were clustered amongst all the full-backs at the club at the same time. Even this season, while Arsenal are top of the ‘injury League’ this is mainly because of long-term injuries to Abou Diaby, Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere, none of which are muscle injuries. There's a case that Arsenal have simply been unlucky this season. Nonetheless, it is true that Arsenal have suffered from muscle injuries this season, and while I am not a medical professional, these are allegedly preventable.

The criticism of Arsene Wenger stems from the contention that his “out-dated training methods” are causing these injuries. The logical corollary of this is that Arsenal used to suffer from an abundance of injuries, it was just that other clubs also did and so this was less noticeable. This is simply factually untrue: in the 1997-98 season, just fifteen players started ten or more League games for Arsenal. If it were the case that the training methods were out-dated, they also would have caused a multitude of injuries fifteen years ago. That they didn’t suggests that unless humans have markedly changed physiologically in the last fifteen years (something I’m going to say is unlikely), Wenger’s training methods cannot be causing more injuries.

Arsenal’s injury crises are actually a relatively recent phenomena, beginning after the stadium move. My theory is that it stems from two things.

First is squad size. Arsenal fans are quite insular and are therefore more likely to notice injuries at their club, compared to at other clubs. Manchester City have been without Matija Nastasic, Sergio Aguero, and Stevan Jovetic for large parts of this season. The difference is that City’s squad is so large that it is far less noticeable when they have a few players injured, even if they are key players. This is comparatively harmful in of itself for Arsenal in terms of picking up results: they simply have fewer excellent players than Manchester City.

But the smaller squad size means that once Arsenal pick up a few injuries, it becomes necessary to keep on playing the same players, often when they are in the famed ‘red zone’, increasing likelihood of further injuries. In other words, it is a self-perpetuating cycle, which it is very difficult to do anything about. Although it is a repeated problem, it is very difficult to fix because of resource considerations: Arsenal simply cannot afford to sign players of the caliber City do, simply to sit on the bench. This part of the problem is therefore definitely not Arsene Wenger’s fault.

The second thing I think Arsenal’s injuries stem from is the type of player they pick: lots of small, skillful nippy players. Arsenal have forsaken the power displayed by players like Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry for more skill-focused players. For a start, the powerful game intuitively seems less likely to cause muscle injuries because it entails far fewer sudden movements. This is born out by the evidence: Vieira and Henry suffered very few muscle injuries in their time at Arsenal.

The short, sharp movements required by the Arsenal game are more likely to cause the sort of muscle strains witnessed. So while there was little that could be done about Walcott or Wilshere’s injuries, those suffered by Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil seem more preventable. Not necessarily on an individual basis, but if Arsenal bought taller, stronger players these players could drive the team forward, giving the skill players room to work their magic. In a sense, the greatest tragedy of the last five years at Arsenal is the impact Abou Diaby would have had if he had been regularly fit. He is exactly the sort of player Arsenal need at the moment – but unfortunately, there is nobody else comparable to him in the squad. This is certainly a failing on the manager’s behalf in terms of recruitment.

Biology was my worst subject at school so I’m not going to sit at my laptop and arbitrarily blame the Arsenal medical department for injuries. Nor do I think it is reasonable to peg all of it on Arsene Wenger: if he were so laissez-faire with his training as to let players get injured easily, I find it unlikely that so many players would say he was the best manager they ever worked with. I do think changing the style of the team somewhat would help to prevent injuries, but there is a question of whether big, strong players can be found who are also technically sound. That’s a job for the summer.

Keep the faith.


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