Arsenal’s depth issues were fully exposed in Wednesday’s 120-minute road win over West Bromwich Albion in a rather unimportant Capital One Cup match, as Arsene Wenger was forced to use a makeshift lineup consisting of regulars who were extended beyond their typical workload and little-known teenagers lacking in first-team experience. Such circumstances may not bode well in the next nine days, as Arsenal have two road Premier League matches and a home Champions League match on their schedule.
Per Mertesacker has played 300 minutes in three games over the course of one week. The 28-year-old was joined in central defense by Thomas Vermaelen, who played 120 minutes in his first full-time match of the season. The Belgian’s only other previous appearance this season was as a substitute in the 80th minute against Sunderland on Sept. 14. Holding midfielder Mikel Arteta was expected to ease back into full-time duty, but played 95 minutes and suffered a cramp on Wednesday after barely playing more than 10 minutes against Stoke City in his season debut on Sunday.
Wenger had no choice but to start the likes of Isaac Hayden, Serge Gnabry, and Thomas Eisfeld, and bring on Chuka Akpom, Kris Olsson, and Hector Bellerin as substitutes. Only the most ardent Arsenal supporter has extensive knowledge of those youngsters’ abilities, yet the undermanned Gunners somehow escaped with a victory over West Brom on penalty kicks.
Such depth problems don’t plague other elite Premier League clubs such as Manchester City and Chelsea, where a star player like Juan Mata can miss out on the 18-man squad based on his inability to fit into the manager’s system, and not because he is injured or needs rest.
Wenger does not have the same luxuries as Manuel Pellegrini and Jose Mourinho, whose rosters are overloaded with talent. Instead, Wenger will have to employ a creative lineup for his thin and perhaps fatigued squad. A rash of injuries to wing players will force Wenger to use players out of position, or rely on unpolished youngsters.
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The good news is that Arsenal sit atop the Premier League table, as the particularly strong play of Mesut Ozil, Olivier Giroud, and Aaron Ramsey, as well as the continued steady presence of Laurent Koscielny and Bacary Sagna are all occurring at once. The good health of often-injured Kieran Gibbs and Jack Wilshere have been a boon for the club, as well.
But Arsenal are currently without several notable names for the coming days, which includes Santi Cazorla (ankle) and Tomas Rosicky (thigh), though both should return in about a week. Cazorla, whose versatility has become immeasurable now as either the club's featured left or right wing, has ruled himself out of the Napoli match on Wednesday. The Spaniard could return on Oct. 6 against West Brom. Meanwhile, Rosicky is expected to return next week.
The right wing has been decimated without Theo Walcott, who underwent stomach surgery on Thursday and will be sidelined for three weeks, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who is estimated to be sidelined until November with a knee injury.
Other long-term absentees include Lukas Podolski (hamstring) and Abou Diaby (both knees). Podolski’s presence is sorely missed at the moment, as he is the sole true left wing following the departures of Gervinho and Andrei Arshavin this summer. Podolski, who could be back in action in November, was also expected to serve as a possible striker.
Yaya Sanoga is out with a back strain, but the 20-year-old striker wasn’t expected to play a vital role in this season’s squad.
The injuries will immediately impact Wenger’s starting lineup. Arsenal have a road match on Saturday against Swansea with some players perhaps operating on just two days of rest, and with a Champions League home match against Napoli looming on Tuesday. Wenger will need a solid contribution from those who have received a full week of rest: Ozil, Giroud, Wilshere, Koscielny, Sagna, Gibbs, and Mathieu Flamini.
Wojciech Szczesny will return to first-team action, but it’s important to note that Lukasz Fabianski did a solid job against West Brom. The Gunners failed to add a star goalkeeper when they missed out on bringing in Julio Cesar this summer, but are not lacking in depth in the department with Fabianski as Szczesny’s capable back up, and Emiliano Viviano as the No. 3.
Swansea are on a three-game unbeaten streak in Premier League play, and have exceeded expectations in the past two seasons since being promoted from the Championship. Michael Laudrup’s squad are not to be taken lightly, and have proven to be a tough task at Liberty Stadium.
Wenger will likely use this 4-2-3-1 lineup against the Welsh club: Szczesny; Sagna, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Gibbs; Flamini, Wilshere; Ramsey, Gnabry, Ozil; Giroud.
Ramsey would be playing out of position as a right wing. The versatile box-to-box midfielder is capable of playing wide, though he has been used sparingly in that role.
The two problematic inclusions are Vermaelen and Gnabry. Both are certainly capable of putting forth a strong effort, but are still a gamble.
Vermaelen, who doesn’t often team with Koscielny in central defense, will be operating on just two full days of rest after playing 120 minutes. Wenger would possibly be overworking Vermaelen, who aggravated his lower back in July and played his first match of the season on Wednesday. The 27-year-old was expected to be eased back into full-time duty. Wenger has used Sagna as a center back before, and might consider it again so that Carl Jenkinson could play right back to rest Vermaelen.
Gnabry, who is just 18 years old, also played 120 minutes against West Brom. His form was unimpressive, but he is considered a burgeoning talent, and may feel more comfortable on Saturday. Wenger might also consider playing left back Nacho Monreal up front as the left wing, or try 21-year-old midfielder Ryo Miyaichi at the position. Neither is an ideal option, but that’s the unfortunate state of Arsenal.
A major concern is too much playing time for certain players ahead of the Napoli clash on Tuesday. Arsenal can’t afford to drop points at home in group play, so Wenger will need to be cautious with the minutes he gives players against Swansea. For that reason, it is probably best that Mertesacker receives rest ahead of the encounter with the Serie A club’s potent attack.
There has been renewed optimism around the Emirates with Arsenal’s hot start to the season, in large part due to the presence of superstar addition Ozil. But the wave of goodwill could quickly turn sour should injuries continue to pile up. The Gunners are keen on ending their silverware drought this season, but at the moment they are just managing to keep their heads above water without a full collection of experienced or capable players. Francis Coquelin, Johan Djourou, and Ignasi Miquel were loaned out this summer, and Wenger could sure use them right now.
The prospect of an Arsenal squad at full strength is tantalizing, but unrealistic given their recent history. Injuries occur quite frequently for Wenger’s side over the past few seasons, and the club is in desperate need of depth for situations like this one. The Gunners are lacking in a striker to keep Giroud on his toes, another versatile midfielder who can play as a wing, and a center back capable of playing right back if needed.
Wenger, who is closing in on a new deal to stay on as Arsenal’s manager, can make do with the personnel he has now, and with a much-needed 13-day break between a Premier League meeting with West Brom on Oct. 6 at The Hawthorns, and a home match on Oct. 19 against Norwich City. The long-time Arsenal boss has juggled problems like this before, and he can certainly do it again.
But the very idea that a club with such lofty aspirations has been stretched this early in the season is at least somewhat distressing.
An IB Times staff reporter contributed to this report.