ARSENAL WON'T BE CHAMPIONS UNTIL THEIR INJURY RECORD IMPROVES
Arsenal followers are daring to dream.
Who can blame them? Their team is flying high at the top of the Premier League, they have made an excellent start in one of the most demanding Champions League groups and record signing Mesut Ozil has galvanised the side in a way that has exceeded most expectations.
Moreover, the playing style is the most effervescent it has been since Cesc Fabregas pulled the midfield strings, culminating in the aesthetic beauty of Jack Wilshere's opening goal against Norwich City on Saturday.
INJURIES SINCE AUGUST 17
Arsenal’s biggest challenge is not recruiting a blue-chip striker in January, as welcome as a bona fide spearhead alternative to Olivier Giroud would be. Or overcoming the mental hurdle of eight trophy-less years.
The principal barrier to the club’s most concerted title challenge since their post-Birmingham City collapse in 2007-08 lies behind the security gates of their London Colney training headquarters.
It is here that an inordinate number of senior players, year after year, spend far too much time rehabilitating from serious injury while the decimated first team struggles to cope with its lack of numbers.
The club’s Achilles heel is their injury prevention and rehabilitation record. Relying predominantly on methods that were ahead of their time when Wenger began his reign in 1996, but are now prehistoric in comparison to rival clubs with considerably less resources, Arsenal are lagging behind in this crucial area.
The new season is barely two months old and Arsenal have barely been able to call upon the services of Santi Cazorla, Lukas Podolski, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Thomas Vermaelen, Mikel Arteta, Theo Walcott and Tomas Rosicky, not to mention long-term absentee Abou Diaby.
This is not down to ill-fortune, an excuse trotted out to hide any number of flaws. Lady luck evens itself out over time, and there is clearly an imbalance to the number of player injuries at Arsenal in recent seasons compared to, say, Chelsea or Manchester City, teams who play a comparable number of matches.
Nor should the finger be pointed at the medical staff, who are usually left to pick up the pieces following the mistakes of others. Or, indeed, the equipment and knowledge available to them. No expense has been spared in furnishing the training ground with state-of-the-art medical and sports science facilities.
The problem is that the players, under the guidance of long-serving fitness coach Tony Colbert, overtrain. This, in turn, makes them more susceptible to picking up injury.
Moreover, players returning from injury are often pushed too far, too soon and suffer major setbacks. Jack Wilshere was a perfect example of this in the final months of last season after experiencing severe pain in his ankles.
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Colbert’s methods are said to be broadly the same as when he joined the club in the late 1998. Yet the pace of the game, and the physical demands on the players, has increased beyond recognition.
Colbert has the full backing of Wenger, whose loyalty to his staff is absolute. Yet there is widespread evidence to demonstrate that the club’s conditioning methods are counter-productive and need updating. Is it a coincidence that Kieran Gibbs' improved health this season has coincided with him employing a personal trainer from outside the club?
Arsenal currently share top place in the Premier League injury table. Both the Gunners and Crystal Palace have six players currently sidelined. Southampton can take pride in being bottom of this table, with not a single first-teamer sidelined.
It is to their credit that Arsenal have managed to race out of the starting blocks this season while having their shirts tugged by poor availabilities.
But Premier League history shows that genuine title contenders emerge from the teams with the biggest and strongest squads.
Sir Alex Ferguson was the biggest rotator of them all. One of his great strengths was managing his resources over a 38-match campaign.
Arsenal have a strong first team, with an eyecatching number of technically gifted attacking midfielders.
But there is an alarming lack of strength in depth, which is likely to prove decisive when the matches pile up over the winter months and resources are stretched across four competitions.
It is hard to see them winning the title if they cannot keep their players fit.
TOWNSEND SHOWS BENEFITS OF INTERNATIONAL BREAK
Club managers generally regard international breaks with the same scorn that most folk view a trip to the dentist – intrusive, painful and massively inconvenient.
But Andre Villas-Boas should offer a nod of appreciation to the fixture list. Andre Townsend left the Tottenham camp earlier this month as a player on the fringes of the England squad and returned a national hero.
Spurs were the immediate beneficiaries against Aston Villa on Sunday. Presented with well-drilled opponents eager to suffocate space and scrap for their lives, the visitors’ task would have been far trickier without the dynamism of Townsend.
The right-winger started slowly before bursting into life at the end of the first half, when he flukily scored with a cross that floated untouched into net before drawing an outstanding save from Brad Guzan with a more authentic effort.
In the second half, Townsend was unstoppable. His team-mates simply gave him the ball and he responded by creating mayhem. The end product was mixed, but poor Antonio Luna at left-back couldn’t cope with the winger’s scorching pace and tricks.
Spurs fans are going to have a lot of fun watching Townsend this season. England's role in his development should not be overlooked.