You can tell it has been a painfully long time since last we had any football to distract us when we find ourselves, as I did last night, watching the ‘action’ from Ashton Gate in the largely forlorn hope that something resembling the beautiful game might inadvertently break out and thus bridge the gap between the last proper match and today’s encounter with Watford. When I say a painfully long time I am not, for once, indulging in wanton exaggeration for narrative effect. I have in fact spent most of the metaphorical international agony in actual, real life, bona fide agony.
Allow me to explain. Disinter the dead past to the tune of about two weeks. Football has been suspended for the nonce, and yours truly is filling the vacuum with some off road bicycling in a disused Somerset quarry. An ill advised change to the rebound on my front forks produced a lack lustre take off from a rocky protuberance on the trail. The usual explosive elasticity one expects to experience when the compressed springs recoil was markedly absent and instead of floating into the air my front wheel shot downwards where, upon encountering a series of jagged stones jutting aggressively from the ground, it decided enough was enough and came to a disconcertingly abrupt halt.
My cycling companions have often remarked on the handicap I have to overcome when dragging such a corpulent frame as mine on the upward sections of our rides, and indeed gravity and the gradient often conspire to leave me panting at the side of the trail as other more lean and muscular fellows sail past, smiles on their faces and an irritatingly healthy blush shading their cherubic little cheeks. On this occasion however my greater bulk served me well in the field of forward motion, momentum being only too delighted to get involved when a vast weight finds itself suddenly and unexpectedly airborne. As it always will, gravity won the day. To cut a long story belatedly short I came down to earth with a bump. Or at least coming to earth would have been infinitely preferably to the boulder and rubble strewn surface with which I became suddenly and violently acquainted.
The medical opinion popular these days is that a broken rib and a severely bruised rib are fairly synonymous where both symptoms and treatment are concerned. As such an x-ray or mustard poultice would be an unnecessary drain on our already underfunded health service and I would therefore be better off groaning and cursing and generally polluting the old homestead in a foul and ill tempered torment until things became less painful.
It would be trifling with your credulity to suggest that I have a sudden and deep insight as to the suffering endured by Jack Wilshere or Danny Welbeck as they languish, forgotten men, in the queue for the physiotherapist’s attentions but you know what? I do have just the smallest inkling. You see my cycling has been coming on in leaps and bounds lately. I’ve been tackling ever more ferocious and uneven gradients, jumping salmon like, if salmon were ever to feel the urge to ride bicycles that is, from ever higher eminences and generally tweaking the nose of fate and sneering at my former timid self for the lilly livered novice that I once was.
Now I find myself faced with weeks on the sidelines and already I know those hard won skills have begun to fade. When I get back out there I will, to an extent, need to start again, building laboriously back to where I was before my ill fated, Icarus like descent from the clouds. Luckily for me I shan’t have tens of thousands of ungrateful spectators groaning and cursing every time I fail to produce a world class display but then neither did I have Fred Street squeezing the magic sponge onto my torso when it all went pear shaped.
So that was my attempt to fill the recent football free void, a failure of epic proportions but one which afforded me a small degree of penetration into the life of an injured sportsman. More than that it altered my prejudice where the dreaded internationals themselves are concerned. Instead of seeing it as nothing more than an opportunity for my favourite players to get hurt and a distraction from real football, I realise that some players gained valuable time on the pitch, some kept their momentum going without having to kick back and twiddle the thumbs for a fortnight while others had a couple of weeks to regain fitness without missing vital Arsenal games. Maybe it wasn’t all such a crushingly boring waste of time after all.
So what of today and the short trip to Watford? Let’s hope above all else that we are able to approach proceedings with the same vim and vigour with which we despatched a then unbeaten Leicester City and a Man United team which had been sailing high at the top of the table. Never mind that Watford are both newly promoted and tipped to struggle by assorted seers and fortune tellers. The fact is that alongside less luminous results they have drawn with both Everton and Southampton and beaten Swansea. I would suggest three teams that, given a fair wind, can give anyone a run for their money.
Taking us on after the international hiatus might be seen as propitious for them and the irritating kick off time is often considered a thing of ill omen among our own supporters. So much for the prospective debit column, what of the assets? Well, we know that a repeat of the first twenty minutes of panache with which we bamboozled, bewildered and butchered Man United ought to be more than enough this evening. We also know that the perfect storm of football we produced a fortnight ago can be annoyingly infrequent just as much as it can be a sign of things to come. We will learn much about our tilt at the crown on days like this. Not the day we slew the giant but the day afterwards. When we are called upon to do the less glamorous work at places like Vicarage Road.
There has been a lot of debate in the run up to this afternoon’s match as to whether or not Arsène ought to rotate his players. If you’ll allow me I’d like to stick in my spoon and have a stir. Given the obvious disclaimer that it’s none of my damn business and the manager can of course choose whomsoever it pleases him to choose, and not in any way wishing to set myself up as an expert or even a vaguely knowledgeable person, a number of facts appear self evident when considering this particular issue.
Firstly any discussion of rotation does not in itself suggest we don’t consider Watford worthy opponents and neither do we assume that the manager or his players do. The Premiership is extremely competitive and the only thing that really separates the so called top teams from the herd is consistency. On any given day any team can beat any other. Look at the ‘shock’ results already this season. Neither West Ham nor Mike Dean were fancied to scrape as much as a point against us and yet both came out as comfortable winners. We consistently finish well above Swansea every season and yet they have shown themselves more than capable of putting on an impressive performance against us and skipping back down the M4 with the points.
If one or other of the middling placed teams could find that holy grail and put a run of results together over more than just two or three weekends they could challenge for a top four finish or potentially the title. This is precisely what Liverpool did a couple of years ago, belying their average mid table status and elbowing their way out of the cheap seats to sit with Arsenal, Man City and Chelsea. The better clubs and the better managers have a proven record of consistently producing the goods, coming back from disappointments and bringing to bear a focus and concentration which sets them apart.
So yes Watford could beat us, yes they could be a very difficult opponent to overcome but realistically one must consider them less of a threat than say either of the Manchester clubs, or a resurgent Liverpool or once they sort their heads out, the Gas Giants of Chelsea. If Arsène chooses to rest Alexis or anyone else against Watford it will be based on the player’s fitness after a long haul around the world and with an eye on future fixtures. You and I can glibly assert that this or that man should play but we don’t have to live with the consequences of a poor or unfortunate decision.
The second point about rotation concerns choice. Does Arsène really exercise a free and unbridled preference in these matters or is rotation, considered realistically, actually foisted upon him? Given the number of games to be played, the various competitions in which we have hopes of success and the demands of the international calendar I would suggest that he doesn’t get to choose whether he rotates his squad he is simply faced with the choice of when he rotates it.
Since the financial shackles have been eased and he has been able to strengthen the playing staff without losing his best and brightest every summer we have seen a different approach to resting players. Look at Theo Walcott as just one shining example. He was used so sparingly last season after returning from injury that many ‘experts’ employed their wisdom to inform us that he must be on his way. His contract hadn’t been signed, Arsène was punishing him by leaving him on the bench and it was only a matter of which club would come in and buy him. Almost certainly Liverpool given that they were going to have to replace Raheem Sterling. Blah, blah and furthermore if you’ll allow me, blah.
Just another case of why read or listen to the self appointed experts anticipating future events when one could just wait and see and then actually know the outcome. The alternative plot to Theo’s 2014/15 story is that he was convalescing. Being nursed carefully by manager and medical staff because given the depth of talent available in the squad the club could afford not to rush him back. We are now enjoying the fruits of Arsène’s careful husbandry. All those seasons playing wide or second striker and the gentle return to the first team look like they’re paying off don’t they? His all round game has been improved by his years of assisting other strikers and that, allied to his innate ability in front of goal, has produced a pretty nifty little centre forward. A budding partnership with a similar scorer/provider in Alexis promises much. If both stay free of injury they look like blossoming into a lethal double act.
But I am at risk of straying from the point. The fact is we didn’t need to rush Theo back because we have a squad which can cope with a few important absentees. The reason such a squad has been assembled is because we will be forced to rest and rotate at various times. The argument that the last time we rested first teamers didn’t work because we lost the match is gibberish. Regardless of individual results we cannot play the same eleven all season. Therefore the replacements need to have a certain amount of match experience and to be sufficiently familiar with their team mates to enable them to integrate as seamlessly as possible when they get the call.
My final point on this subject is that we, you and I, the punter, the armchair fan and the blogger simply do not have the relevant information to second guess Arsène when it comes to decisions vis a vis resting players. We have no idea of his long term plans, of the medical information he receives of what he sees and hears in training, what advice he gets from his coaching staff, his preferred methods for motivating each individual member of his squad. There is far more to it than Stew Black saying I love Tomáš Rosický and regardless of his age, fitness, or the future development of other players in the squad I demand he starts every match. When you cannot imagine how to tie the man’s laces you shouldn’t even attempt to picture yourself walking a mile in Arsène’s shoes.
In any case, all of the above is only so much hooey as we will support whichever eleven players pull on the jersey. Always have and always will. You and I debating who should or shouldn’t play is like my dog’s fleas arguing over which tree he should next piss against. Just like those pesky little varmints we would be better off simply hanging on and enjoying the ride.