Only six rounds into the Premier League and we are already discussing the bane of every gooner’s existence, the injury bug.
In a recent ESPN FC
click bait article, using data accumulated over the years at PhysioRoom.com, the staff writer indicates that Arsenal accumulated 889 injuries since August 2002. The number is staggering and there is certainly a story behind there. Unfortunately the article did nothing to address the why.
Although the media would have you think it is something in the water at London Colney, Arsenal’s injuries over the last decade are an unfortunate combination of factors. Each on an individual level very manageable, but when layered upon one another they become an exponential monster of an emergency room visit.
Style of Play
Arsenal’s beautiful style of play, with its build up and pass mastery is likely an issue behind the injuries. I only have access to team stats for the last 3 seasons, but my gut would tell me that it is a safe bet to say Arsenal was in the top 3 for possession and passing stats in the Premier League going back to 2002. As of right now, they hold top marks for both possession and passing, as they did in 13/14, and 12/13.
Aggression pays off against this style of play. Historically, providing Arsenal with time and space would lead to certain defeat. We’ve seen many clubs, even big clubs (looking at you Manchester City), setup in high press, with a likely chance of systematic fouling. Building up play, with technical players does also invite defenses to come at the players. Playing in tight spaces will result in bodies being smashed against one another. This all adds up to more impact injuries. Necks, ribs, shoulders, knees, and ankles as well as knocks to soft tissues can be delineated from the tactics of both Arsenal and opposition teams.
A trademark of possession style football is also repetition. Trap, pass. Trap, pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Arsenal passes more than any team in the Premier League 18,173 and 17,797 successful passes in 13/14 and 12/13 respectively. That is 492 and 995 more successful passes than the next best club, respectively. These reflexive and quick movements are repeated more than any other team. Again, this alone probably wouldn’t be enough to intensify the injury issues, but add in…
Depth of Squad
Starting around 2006, coinciding with the opening of the Emirates, up until just recently, Arsenal Football Club has been on a very restrictive budget. Arsene Wenger was given the onus to maintain a high standing in the league, remain in the Champions League, as well as turn a profit in the player market. I will say this is all allegedly, as it is only speculation that these exact restrictions were placed on Wenger. Presuming that in fact Arsenal was playing within self-created constraints, the club went through large periods of time lacking depth in various positions. Muscular injuries have plagued the club at an alarming rate during the lean years, likely as a result of strain and muscle fatigue associated with lack of squad rotation.
If you believe that these restrictions did not exist, than the depth of the squad and the lack of addressing weakness can be placed squarely on the shoulders of Arsene Wenger and his negotiating team. I, for one, do not believe this is a black and white issue. It is likely a bit of both; Wenger not overpaying for stars nor wanting to settle for subpar players, as well as mandates from the board to sell top players when decent offers came in.
A major contentious talking point: The trainers at Arsenal for the better part of the last decade have been sub par. Giving some credence to this point, this summer Arsenal went out and signed the American-magic-man-physio Shad Forsyth. Forsyth has spent the last ten years as part of the German national team back room staff. Shad unfortunately didn’t join the team until after the World Cup and has ultimately spent little time during the crucial summer months helping to establish the important ground work that will bear fruit in the months to come.
Even in the world of elite athletes the proper trainers and doctors can make a huge impact. For example, Chelsea have had players join them and rave about the physio practices the team employs, with some players even shedding long-term ailments after signing with the club. This isn’t to say Forsyth will heal all wounds, but adding a world class trainer to the staff is most certainly a sign of intent to address the issue.
A secondary issue with team doctors in connection with the depth of the squad is the allowing a player to return to the team although they may not be fully fit. I would imagine some of these doctors are under immense pressure from the club to get players back on the pitch. This isn’t an excuse for the doctors professional duty to the players, but I think it plays a part at the fringe. In other words, a player might be very close to returning to 100%, but rather than resting the few extra days, they are given the green light to return.
Type of Player/Size
The next car on the injury train is relative to the style of play Wenger has employed. Quick, agile, and technical are all the attributes Wenger seeks out in his players. What he doesn’t seek out is small players, but unfortunately, a majority of agile and technical players happen to also have a small frame. The small frame doesn’t lend itself well to aggressive tactics. Arsenal deployed the smallest starting XI this year in the Premier League, this speaks for itself.
Another contentious point is the claim that Wenger has prehistoric and “marine-like” training sessions. This feeds into the characterization of Wenger as stubborn and stuck in his ways. Often given the label of revolutionary when he entered the Premier League 18 years ago, today, some claim, he is still using his 2o year old training methods.
I am not on the training ground, but I have a tough time believing that Wenger is so stubborn to ignore new methods. From conversations with Chris Gluck, whom has some insight on the statistical side of the game, Arsenal as a whole is constantly looking to improve, both on the training ground and in the back rooms. I also recall renowned movement coach Kelly Starrett, author of Becoming The Supple Leopard: The Ultimate Guide to Resolving Pain, Preventing Injury, and Optimizing Performance doing a seminar for Arsenal about a year ago. This doesn’t sound closed off to new methods in my opinion.
What Does It All Mean
We are currently looking at an another string of injuries for Arsenal. The injuries to Ramsey and Arteta on the weekend do not bode well for muscle strain/fatigue concerns, as it was hamstring and calf problems, respectively. Both men were given the midweek match prior to Saturday off. There are certainly questions to be asked on why these two individuals are injured.
Some of the blame can be hoisted on Wenger, lack of depth at holding midfielder and centerback has been evident since the summer. Although the “top top” quality may have not been available, certainly above-average talent, to play stop gap in emergency situations was up for grabs.
The positives, the other injuries are mostly joint and/or impact related. Injuries more related to the course of normal play rather than of poor methodology. Walcott is a month away. And the cult classic, Abou Diaby is back.