With Aaron’s untimely injury, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s struggle for form and Jack not likely to take much part this season, some people are becoming a little edgy as to our options should we lose anyone else. Folk gather in nervous corners speaking in tremulous whispers about what we might do should Santi or Mesut get crocked. They frighten little children into behaving with nightmarish tales of title tilts toppled by tweaks and tears to vital Teutonic tendons or over stretched Spanish sinews. Is there any way to calm these jittery Jonas?
Well I for one am perfectly relaxed about the situation, and here’s why. Any team, whether at the top of the Prem or the bottom of the conference would struggle if they lost their best players. That was true before the season started, before our Welsh wonder’s latest knock and will still be true when he and all the rest are fit again. If you can’t cope with this simple truth, and I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings, then you are well and truly buggered.
In any event this all set me to meditate upon those players on the fringes of first team selection, and what with the League Cup providing an obvious opportunity to give some of the superstars a breather, these players will be very much in the manager’s thoughts as well. When the first team were visibly tiring against a determined Everton side on Saturday evening (hardly surprising given the levels they reached in defeating Bayern earlier in the week) I was in conversation with Shotta. It was around about the time that Mathieu Flamini began to unzip his tracksuit top. I suggested that the imminent substitution meant Arsène had seen enough and had decided that we needed to shore things up, deny Everton space in the middle and choke off their attacks which were, by now, becoming a bit of a nuisance. Shotta G concurred. This seemed a good tactical change to make at that stage of the game.
Of course the first thing Flamini did when he got onto the pitch (after his customary slightly too heavy first challenge – naturellement) was to take the game to the opposition in no uncertain terms, popping up more often in and around their area than our own. In fact he got into a great position and very nearly scored. Never mind bringing on a defensive midfielder, it appeared that Arsène had brought on a maverick. This was a man playing with a lightness of the soul, a player who knows he hasn’t long left at the top of the game, has nothing more to prove to anyone and is only too happy to take a few pot shots at goal should the chance arise.
Lee Dixon did a short piece to camera for the Arsenal website recently commemorating Tony Adams. He talked with obvious emotion about he and his captain’s final season before retirement and it was obvious how players reaching the autumn of their careers relish each passing game, suffused as they are with knowledge that every ninety minutes brings them so much closer to their last. This got me thinking about how Mathieu Flamini took his goals against Spurs in the last round of this competition; the panache, the joie de vivre, the devil-may-care attitude. My thoughts inevitably strayed to players at the other end of the career spectrum.
Alex Oxelaide-Chamberlain has stalled somewhat. He has struggled with injuries and has had to sit and watch while others cement their place in the hierarchy. This can only make it harder for him to get back to where he needs to be and it is little surprise that the pressure upon him might make him try the occasional shot which isn’t on, or push himself to take on just one player too many. It looks to my untutored eye as if he isn’t letting his game flow naturally and instinctively enough to allow the good stuff to happen.
You may recall me describing a recent unscheduled trip into space I took when inadvertently leaving my mountain bike behind after jumping from a ledge or outcrop. What brought me to such a pass was partly to do with my tinkering with the machine but overwhelmingly because I wasn’t riding well. My technique had deserted me and instead of tootling off and finding other diversions, switching focus and letting things come back to me in their own good time, I forced the issue and paid the price.
While I make no comparison with my sedate two wheeled adventures and the life of a professional footballer there is a universal truth here. You cannot compel things to go well. In any sport you can feel when you’re in the right place and you know when you’ve slipped from it.The bind for the pro is they must work through their issues under the unforgiving stare of sixty thousand demanding punters and the unrelenting gaze of multiple television cameras. I can tool off into the woods among the bunnies and the autumn berries when my jumping skills temporarily desert me, Alex doesn’t have that luxury.
I have no doubt the Ox will find his mojo again and stake his claim to a first team place. At his best I think he is the perfect understudy to Alexis. Both have a powerful shot, acceleration and love to go past defenders, neither are particularly suited to defensive work but will do their bit for the team as all players in the modern game must. If he fills in for Aaron over the following few weeks I’m sure we’ll see him relax more and start to show why he excited so many Arsenal fans earlier in his career.
The contrast with younger players fighting for form, desperate to grasp the nettle whenever a glimpse of a first team place appears and a Mathieu Flamini just happy to play and under absolutely no pressure at all, is striking. There is another species of sportsman. This is the rarest of footballers on the planet. A kind of freak of nature hybrid creature, a youngster who can play with the same mindset shown by our battle hardened man from Marseille. A kid with the cool of a veteran. Such a player is Hector Bellerin and he has taken to football at the very highest level with a brio and a bravado that I think is simply breathtaking.
The environment in which he earns his corn is hostile, unforgiving, highly scrutinised and one in which he faces some of the fastest most skilful players in world football. Yet the boy just doesn’t seem to give a hoot. If he gets beaten once or twice (and that is all that happened in the first half against Bayern – he was definitely not ‘schooled’ or ‘out of his depth’) then he not only comes back stronger but sticks two fingers up to a watching world who think he ought to cower on the edge of the 18 yard box praying for the final whistle, runs rampant through one of the best teams on the planet and calmly sets up Mesut Özil for the winning goal. Some players have that special blend of confidence and ability which sets them apart. If the boy has the character to match, and the signs are promising, then he has a hell of a career ahead of him.
The sudden stratospheric upward surge of young Hector has turned French international fullback Mathieu Debuchy into another of our fringe players. This is a hugely experienced footballer, much admired across Europe and at 30 years old is still at the peak of his powers, I don’t think any top team in the land would mind having that kind of defensive cover. Talking of full backs what of our other forgotten man? Kieran Gibbs has built up a deal of experience at a young age. He knows Nacho will need to be injured before he gets any time at left back, so well has the Spaniard been playing, but he will see more substitute appearances as the boss rests and protects Alexis, especially when we are seeing out a narrow victory.
If Aaron’s injury pushed Ox up the pecking order then everyone behind him shuffled forward a place too. Joel Campbell will, I assume, start tonight and he is another lad with talent, quite a bit of experience and a point to prove. Just how he gets enough game time to prove it I don’t know but it would be silly to ignore him. I suppose the best way to guarantee a few more starts is for him to ensure we stay in the league cup starting with a win this evening. Again we do not know what he is capable of because he hasn’t really had a chance to show us.
Where does Calum Chambers fit into all this? What about our captain? What of the many youth team players looking at Hector Bellerin and wondering – could that be me? Mikel Arteta knows his playing days are numbered and accepts this with the dignity synonymous with the man himself. I believe he still has the calmness, skill and football know-how to be a valuable squad member but I accept he probably wouldn’t last a run of of fixtures. And Calum? He played a lot more than he might have expected in his first season but has slipped back down the ladder since. Is he a centre back, full back or defensive midfielder? We’ll find out in the fullness of time of course, but he could do a job in any of the three positions and as such, should disaster strike, he could easily step in while perhaps Santi moves forward.
I’m sure I’ve left people out, these are merely the idle musings of a bruised old man and not the product of any real research. I just wanted to make the point that in the event of injury disaster the future is not as bleak as some might have it. Of course for a second stringer or youth player to do more than just plug a gap, it would require someone to do an Anelka or a Hector or dare I say it do what Francis Coquelin did last season. As unlikely and infrequently as it happens, these players do appear and they do, from time to time surprise people. In fact if it were to happen again under the watchful eye of Arsène Wenger it would hardly be a surprise. The man develops talent in a way other managers can only spend money.
I hope we go all the way in this competition. I want the fringe players to get as many chances on the centre stage as they can. Firstly to keep themselves up to speed so they hit the ground running when called upon by the first team and secondly because I want everyone involved at the club to taste success and to do well. So let’s see if we can progress tonight and while we’re at it I’d rather like it if Bournemouth, Middlesbrough, Crystal Palace and Stoke went through too. It won’t be the end of the world if we get knocked out but it would make it ever harder for those waiting in the wings to strut their stuff.