Arsenal, it is fair to say, do not need to manufacture their own injury problems. Arsene Wenger currently has nine first-team players unavailable due to assorted ailments, including long-term problems for Mesut Ozil and Mikel Arteta, plus the chronic issue of Abou Diaby’s fitness. That number doesn’t include Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who suffered what Wenger called a “knock” against Hull in the FA Cup on Sunday. But the manager was sure the England winger would be fine for next weekend. Arsenal fans will be forgiven for not holding their breath on that one.
Indeed, all but four of what you might call Arsenal’s first-team players have spent varying amounts of time unavailable because of injury this season: Calum Chambers, Per Mertesacker and Santi Cazorla are three of the miraculously healthy, leaping up every week like eager dogs waiting to chase another stick through the park. The other is Alexis Sanchez, who coincidentally has been Arsenal’s best and most threatening player, as well as a candidate for the best transfer in the Premier League this season.
You wonder how the Chilean has remained in such fine fettle, though. Almost exactly a month ago, on Dec. 5, Wenger said this about Sanchez:
“He is in the red zone. You can see that when he plays, but he can dig deep. I think he played his 27th game since the start of the season on Wednesday, if you consider the international games and the travelling on top of that. Unfortunately, you never know how far you can push. We are not scientific enough to predict that completely, but he has great recovery potential. He recovers very quickly, and he is always very sharp and ready to play.”
Since the above statement, Arsenal have played eight games. Sanchez was rested for one of them (the relatively meaningless Champions League game vs. Galatasaray) but started the remainder, granted a full 10 minutes’ respite over those seven matches through three late-game substitutions. It equates to a grand total of 620 minutes, including all 270 of the three games in five days over Christmas and New Year. If he was in the red zone before all of that, which zone is he in now?
Over the entire season, Sanchez has started all but one of Arsenal’s Premier League games, seven Champions League games (finishing five of them) and even completed the Capital One Cup defeat to Southampton in September. Add to that six international friendlies in three trips for Chile (played in Florida and Chile) during which he played at least 85 minutes in each match. In total, Sanchez has played 2,920 minutes of football over 36 appearances for club and country since joining Arsenal in the summer.
It’s perfectly understandable that Wenger finds it difficult — impossible, even — to resist the temptation of playing Sanchez given how good he has been. Against Hull he was once again their catalyst, pressing and harrying and creating and, of course, scoring their second goal, a perfect shot on the turn that arrowed into the bottom corner. As with many great players, Sanchez is probably Arsenal’s best performer in two or three different positions.
As much as any skill he has, relentlessness is what makes Sanchez such a remarkable player. He’s like a non-violent version of Nicky Santoro, Joe Pesci’s character from “Casino,” about whom Robert De Niro’s Sam Rothstein says: “You beat Nicky with fists, he comes back with a bat. You beat him with a knife, he comes back with a gun. And you beat him with a gun, you better kill him, because he’ll keep comin’ back and back until one of you is dead.” Sanchez doesn’t use fists, bats, knives or guns, but he will keep comin’ back.
But at what cost? Wenger justified his inclusion against Hull by saying he “always wants to play and that is what you want to see” and that he recovers quickly, showing little sign of fatigue in Arsenal’s medical tests.
And yet Wenger himself has admitted that medical tests are not advanced enough to predict when an injury will occur, making it difficult to know exactly how hard to push. With that in mind, even though it’s true to say that injuries can happen any time, surely caution is the most preferable course of action for your best player. If his hamstring was to snap at some point in the coming weeks, the fallout would land Arsenal in some trouble.
Even if you don’t believe the evidence of your own eyes to know that Sanchez is crucial to the Arsenal cause, he is their top-scorer with 15 goals and their top assist-provider with seven. Next on the list are Welbeck with seven goals and Santi Cazorla with five assists. Take Sanchez’s contribution away and suddenly even Arsenal’s chances of making the top four, the base line (and simultaneously, you might say the limit) of their expectations, look pretty shaky
You could raise similar injury and burnout concerns about Chambers, Cazorla and Mertesacker (2,311, 2,339 and 2,430 minutes of football this season respectively), particularly given the former’s youth, but none are as important to the team as Sanchez.
Admittedly, Arsenal were not exactly flush with striking options for the Hull game. Olivier Giroud was suspended, Danny Welbeck and Yaya Sanogo injured and Lukas Podolski on his way to Inter, but there were other solutions that would have given Sanchez a break. Theo Walcott or Joel Campbell could have played through the middle. Big things are expected of Chuba Akpom, too, or Wenger could even have delayed Podolski’s departure for a couple of days. For a competition that is and probably should be comfortably Arsenal’s third priority at present, a different solution should have been found.
Resting a player is as much a preventative measure as a curative one: it’s not just to give them a chance to put their feet up after feeling a bit tired, but to help prevent ailments or burn-out. With games against Arsenal’s bete noire Stoke, Manchester City and Tottenham in the coming weeks, Wenger needs Sanchez at his peak and thus should manage him accordingly.
In baseball, injuries to pitchers are now so common that pitching has been described not as an injury waiting to happen, but an injury happening: there is a danger of this becoming true with a player as relentless and physical as Sanchez. Given the propensity for such injuries at Arsenal, perhaps Wenger should adopt the same attitude about his own players, particularly his best ones, before they are worn into the ground and another season of dissatisfaction passes by.
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