Arsène Wenger’s pre-FA Cup press conference brought some decidedly mixed news on the injury front. Wenger suggested that Sunday’s game at the Emirates may come just a little bit too soon for his energetic Chilean, even though Alexis is not expected to be out for much longer. For Aaron Ramsey, the prognosis is slightly more dire, although his expected two week absence is a something of a relief considering the earlier estimates of roughly a month on the sidelines that had been bandied about.
Even though the Gunners’ injury situation has cleared up somewhat over the past few weeks, the susceptibility of Arsenal players to injuries continues to remain a worry. For Sanchez, there are plenty of options as Arsenal is very well stocked in attack. Ramsey’s absence however throws up a different conundrum. For whilst in terms of pure numbers, the Gunners are generally adequately provisioned, Ramsey’s position is the one specialist area where the options are rather thin at the moment. The good news on that front is that Jack Wilshere is closing in on a return after making a quicker than expected recovery from the ankle injury he sustained against Manchester United in November. However, given the fact that he has been out for almost three months, it’s doubtful if Wenger will be prepared to throw him in at the deep end immediately.
For the immediate challenge of Middlesbrough’s visit to the Emirates, Wenger may have no choice other than to play a 4-3-3 with Flamini and Coquelin in the deeper positions and one of Santi Cazorla or Mesut Özil occupying the more advanced midfield berth. The German has been in excellent form of late, and it may be a good idea to start him in order to afford him the opportunity to continue to build on his form ahead of what promises to be a testing few weeks where Arsenal will have to compete on three fronts. In attack, things should be relatively straightforward as the absence of Sanchez means that Welbeck, Giroud and Walcott are virtually guaranteed starts.
The obvious problem with a setup that relies so heavily on two defensive midfielders whose brief is more to destroy play than to create, is that Arsenal may not enjoy as much possession as would have been expected against a team that should, with all due respect to Middlesbrough, be technically inferior to the Gunners. However, this should be mitigated somewhat by the pace on the flanks that the likes of Welbeck, Walcott and Bellerin should provide. In addition, if Wenger’s charges can show enough efficiency in the final third of the pitch, the expected relative deficit in the possession stakes notwithstanding, the Gunners should create sufficient opportunities to come away with progression into the next round.
One option that should not be entertained, however, is playing Rosicky and Cazorla as part of the three in midfield alongside Coquelin. As the distressing performance against Leicester City showed, the Gunners are simply too flimsy in the middle of the park without another slightly more defensively aware midfielder to assist Coquelin. It’s for this reason that Wilshere’s timely return from injury is so welcome. Starting against Middlesborough may be too much to ask, but it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that he could make an appearance from the bench for this encounter and be gradually eased into the starting eleven over the next couple of weeks. Prior to his injury he had just about begun to show glimpses of finally beginning to deliver on his undoubted potential and hopefully, his return should see him simply pick up from where he left off. If he can quickly get back on track, his availability for selection for the upcoming fixtures before Ramsey returns should prove a boon, especially for the forthcoming Champions league matches against Monaco.
More than just providing an alternative for the mixture of silk and steel that Ramsey can provide, Wilshere’s availability should also make Arsenal more fluid in midfield. One recent feature of Arsenal’s game has been a tendency to sit back and absorb pressure. Whilst this is useful in some ways as it has generally made the team more compact defensively, there has also been a noticeable loss of what Wenger likes to term, “technical quality”. The involvement of Wilshere, should aid Arsenal in rediscovering this elusive feature, something that has become so ingrained in Arsenal teams of the recent past that they seem just a little uncertain and bereft of ideas when they are unable (or in some instances incapable) of wresting control over proceedings and dictating the pace of a game.
Of course, the best thing that could happen would simply be for the Arsenal manager to have all his options available, and hopefully that day is not too far off. In the meantime, however, what’s important is that the Gunners continue to make the best use of those options that are available in order to ensure that they not fall any further behind in their quest to secure a top four berth and hopefully secure another cup this term.