Wayne Veysey explains why the Gunners' lack of options could undermine their title challenge and how Martin Jol must take drastic action to shake up Fulham.
With Arsenal a goal down and looking bereft of attacking impetus as the clock showed 20 minutes remaining at Old Trafford on Sunday, Arsene Wenger swung round from his spot in the technical area and glanced at the substitutes' bench.
It did not offer much in the way of encouragement. Jack Wilshere, recovering from his latest ankle injury, had already been summoned a few moments earlier to replace Mathieu Flamini and provide some midfield vigor.
The five remaining outfield substitutes consisted of three defenders (Nacho Monreal, Carl Jenkinson and Isaac Hayden), a rookie winger (Serge Gnabry) and a striker who had not started a league match for the club in two-and-a-half years — and had given an interview before the game complaining that he would have to remain at Arsenal until a replacement is secured.
The lack of squad depth was as alarming for Gunners fans as hearing Wenger speak in his post-match press conference about how nervous the team had been in the first half.
Arsenal is probably the most settled team in the league. Only injury or illness, in the case of Sunday’s side that started against Manchester United, provokes Wenger into making anything other than minor adjustments to his lineup. However, the lack of backup options compared to Chelsea, the two Manchester clubs and even Tottenham is likely to prove even more telling as the season progresses.
David Moyes was able to summon Tom Cleverley, Ryan Giggs and Marouane Fellaini from the bench as United protected its lead against the Londoners on Sunday. Javier Hernandez was not required to perform a late rescue act and remained in his tracksuit.
How Arsenal could have done with a striker of Hernandez’s supreme goal-poaching skills as it searched for a late equalizer.
Had Bacary Sagna’s fabulous whipped-in delivery in added time reached a predator of the alertness and anticipation of Hernandez at the far post rather than Bendtner, the Londoners would most likely be reflecting today upon a crucial point collected rather than another Old Trafford defeat.
This column has analyzed before how Arsenal’s continuing inability to keep its players fit will undermine a possible title challenge. Long-term absentees Theo Walcott, Lukas Podolski, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Abou Diaby will bolster the squad when they return to action but history suggests the club’s never-ending injury crisis will have struck other players by the time the busy winter schedule kicks in.
Mesut Ozil is understood to have been close to the "red" zone in the buildup to the United match, the point where fatigued athletes are at the greatest risk of injury. It is little surprise the German looked dead on his feet Sunday. He has barely paused for breath since his deadline day move, playing every match home and away, in domestic and European competition.
The Spanish league allows players to occasionally stroll through matches, especially for a dominant team like Real Madrid. The Premier League is not so forgiving. Even the top players need to be rotated in order to remain fresh and at the top of their game.
But Wenger does not want too much competition in his squad. He believes it disrupts harmony and reduces opportunities for players who have his complete trust. Yet the folly of failing to recruit a marquee center forward in the summer was fully exposed at Old Trafford.
Olivier Giroud is regarded by Wenger and his staff as one of the most durable players in the squad. He collected a minor knee injury in Dortmund midweek but there were never any doubts from within that the Frenchman would shake it off and take his place in the team.
However, Giroud cannot spearhead the attack every match for the whole season. That is an impossible physical burden. Even Thierry Henry had Sylvain Wiltord, Kanu and Dennis Bergkamp for backup during the glory days of the Wenger era.Giroud has Bendtner. Enough said.
IT IS TIME FOR FULHAM TO AXE BERBATOV
Martin Jol needs to take drastic action and drop Dimitar Berbatov.
For soccer purists, it is is the animal rights equivalent of shooting Bambi. The enigmatic Bulgarian is not only a sublime player when in the mood but a throwback to an era when team sheets were not governed by pro-zone stats and tracking of the midfield anchorman.
For Jol, who has enjoyed such a successful working alliance with Berbatov at Tottenham and Fulham, and was central in persuading the striker to shun Fiorentina for west London 15 months ago, relegating the forward from his starting lineup would represent an even more radical step.
But Fulham’s precarious form and position in the table, a single point and place above the drop zone, requires ruthless action.
An out-of-sync Berbatov is a luxury the team can ill afford at the moment. He lacks the mobility to lead the line, especially for a team whose only genuine speedster capable of getting behind defenses is rookie Alex Kacaniklic. Berbatov also is unwilling to offer more than the most basic defensive duties when selected in his favorite No. 10 role.
In its present predicament, Fulham needs forwards willing to close down space, something that Berbatov has never been interested in.
He is struggling to recapture his form of last season, when he scored 15 league goals in 33 games and delivered a series of sparking displays. His 10 league starts have yielded only a single goal this season, a header in the 4-1 win at bottom-club Crystal Palace.
It is time for a spell on the subs’ bench for the enigmatic Bulgarian.