Manchester United boss Erik ten Hag claimed only last month that Arsenal had been fortunate with injuries this season. But that couldn’t be further from the truth for Mikel Arteta.
Arsenal started the season with a relatively small squad. Arteta had shifted out so many players he considered not having a future at the club.
No one expected a title challenge at the Emirates this season, hence why the hierarchy had to move quickly in the January window to give Arteta the best chance possible and help bolster his squad options. But as the campaign began, Arteta’s preferred starting XI became clear for all to see.
Arsenal won their first three matches of the Premier League season, after losing the opening three of the campaign before. Victories over Crystal Palace, Leicester and Bournemouth got the Gunners off to the perfect start.
Arteta named the same starting XI for all three of those games. Five players were signed in the summer and two of them immediately became shoo-ins in Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko.
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Zinchenko slotted in at left-back, with Ben White taking up a new role on the opposite side of defence. William Saliba impressed straight away alongside Gabriel, with Aaron Ramsdale starting his first full season as the club’s No 1.
Arteta felt confident playing a 4-3-3 formation, with Thomas Partey the deeper-lying member of the midfield. Granit Xhaka looked a different play as a No 8 and Martin Odegaard took to captaincy like a duck to water.
Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli are Arsenal’s two wide wizards, with Jesus finally given the chance to spearhead a team’s attack through the middle. If you ask an Arsenal fan or most neutrals, that XI would be what they pick as Arteta’s first-choice team.
But Arteta hasn’t had it easy. Since those three wins at the beginning of the season, he has only been able to name that team on three further occasions.
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The last of those times was before the World Cup when Arsenal beat Wolves 2-0 at Molineux. They were cruising at that point and it appeared as if no team could get in their way.
Arsenal have won all six matches when Arteta has fielded his strongest team. They have scored 15 goals, conceding just three, and kept four clean sheets.
When teams win a title, people often reminisce about a starting XI in formation that reminds them of that season. But Arsenal have now played 17 league games in a row where they have been unable to pick that team.
Gabriel Jesus got injured at the World Cup which ruled him out for months. As soon as he got back, William Saliba suffered a back injury that now looks set to keep him out for the rest of the season.
Those are the two biggest blows Arteta has suffered. But there have been others. Thomas Partey has only started 25 of 32 league games, missing the trip to Old Trafford and vitally the visit of title rivals Manchester City in January – both games which Arsenal lost.
Zinchenko has started just 23 after several injury concerns in the early stages of the season. Teams get injuries and perhaps Arsenal haven’t had as many as some teams.
But Ten Hag’s comment that Arsenal “almost have all the time a squad that is totally available” is completely unfounded. It is not just the first XI where injuries have struck.
Emile Smith Rowe, one of the shining lights in England last season, missed almost four months with a groin problem. Mohamed Elneny had over two months on the sidelines between August and November with a hamstring problem before suffering a knee injury in January which has ruled him out for the remainder of the season.
Takehiro Tomiyasu also injured his knee at just the wrong time. He went off 10 minutes before Saliba was struck down with his back issue during the Europa League last-16 loss to Sporting Lisbon.
Tomiyasu could have been a key play in the final months of the season as he would have enabled Arteta to move White to centre-back in Saliba’s absence. Arteta has instead been left with no other choice but to play Rob Holding in every game.
For Arsenal to win the league this season they needed everything to go their way. Many felt Jesus’ injury was going to cost them and somehow they came through it.
But the Saliba absence has been far more damaging. If Arteta thought his team were going to be in a title race, perhaps he wouldn’t have Holding as his first-choice back-up at right centre-back.
Not everything can be pinned on Holding in recent weeks, it would be unfair to do so. But Arsenal simply don’t have the squad to finish above Manchester City.
Arsenal haven’t won the title since the Invincibles season of 2003/04. Most fans now could name what they would consider the first-choice team from that campaign.
Jens Lehmann in goal, a back four of Lauren, Kolo Toure, Sol Campbell and Ashley Cole, Patrick Vieira and Gilberto Silva in the middle of the park, with Freddie Ljunberg and Robert Pires out wide providing service to a front two of Dennis Bergkamp, just behind Thierry Henry.
Sound familiar? There were T-shirts made of that XI and people still wear them at the Emirates to this day.
In truth, Arsene Wenger only picked that XI on TWO occasions all season across all competitions. Both were in the Premier League, one of which the title was already sealed on the final day against Leicester.
That may be hard to believe. But Wenger had seasoned pros such as Ray Parlour and Martin Keown, players that had been there before and done it, as well as exciting young talents such as Jose Antonio Reyes and Gael Clichy.
Arsenal had won the league just two years earlier, so the likes of Sylvain Wiltord, Kanu and Edu all know what it took. The squad was not the biggest – Wenger used just 22 players in the league – but the vast majority had done it before.
So even when Wenger couldn’t name his so-called best XI, he had other options that were more than up to the task. Sadly for Arsenal, this season has been one step too far for the back-up brigade.
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