Well the good news appears to be that the squad injury update ahead of the game against Watford on Sunday is positive. Only Kieran Tierney and Granit Xhaka remain doubts. For Xhaka the main worry is in the wording from the clubs medical team that he is expected to be in full training in the new year. The reason that is a worry is that we need him to be up and running by January 1st ideally, because by then we’ll have lost Thomas Partey and we need that midfield to have a little bit of experience in it because on New Years Day we have the unenviable task of trying to collect something from Man City at home.
The fact that the timeline says full training by the new year says to me that if he’s returning on 2nd January to full team training, he’s probably not going to be match fit until middle of January. By then we’ll have had the City game at home and Tottenham away, not to mention an FA Cup third round tie to be thinking about. It’s a tough one and although there are plenty of people who look at Granit Xhaka with an element of frustration, you can’t convince me that a midfield of Sambi Lokonga and Ainsley Maitland-Niles have the tools and the experience to cope with whatever midfield City put out.
Maybe we should be looking at that type of a game as a ‘free hit’ anyway as City aren’t playing in the same field as us for most of the season, but with them only three points ahead of us as it stands, there are a few Gooners starting to look up and wonder how far this young team can take us, after the impressive win against Leicester. We all saw how different the football was with none of our new signings and a heavily impacted side against Brentford, Man City and Chelski at the start of the season, so take out Partey and Aubameyang from our line up and how much are we impacted if we were playing City right now with the side we have got?
Perhaps not as much, because most of those others players should – lack of injuries permitting – be available to play in that game, but it feels like at the moment we have a good thing going on and taking even one puzzle piece out of this team feels like it could disturb the balanced equilibrium it feels like we have right now.
We are in a good run of form at the moment but as Wenger always said with confidence being like going up stairs and going down in a lift i.e. difficult to build and easy to break down – it feels like we need to see this collective of 11 players playing for a sustained period of time to be able to get our confidence at a point where if we get knocked down by defeat we can get back up again. That’s why I’m so keen to see Xhaka return because he is a senior pro – despite his failings – and having him in the team and somebody like Lokonga or Maitland-Niles covering space and able to put the hard yards in that he won’t, feels like an important thing for January.
Hopefully the club are being overly cautious and there is a chance he’ll return over the Christmas period to get himself up and running for that tough month of January we’re going to have.
As for Tierney, well, the benefit of the form of Nuno Tavares is that it makes absolutely no sense to rush Tierney back this weekend for the Watford game. And besides, the form of the marauding Portuguese is such that he probably deserves another start anyway, so it feels like the right call to be keeping him in, telling Tierney to get himself ready for that Liverpool game because I think Tierney in that game is probably a better selection choice than playing a raw Tavares against the Liverpool front three.
Regardless of who starts, however, it’s good to see that we have that option at left back and if we could only replicate that on the other side, then you’d be looking at our current situation and be rather excited for us longer term. Certainly if we can get back in to Europe next season. The challenge that we are all hoping clubs like West Ham have is that you can’t go deep in multiple competitions unless you have a squad that is capable of rotation and to go deep you don’t just need the bodies, you need players that when they fill the void left by first teamers through injury, the team still looks solid. The nightmare we had when Tierney got injured and we played Xhaka at left back basically cost us a Europa League final against United and so the club have learned their lesson in that position. But if we’re playing in Europe next season there needs to be a Tavares-type player on that right hand side too.
But that’s a concern for next summer, because for the remainder of this season we’re basically playing once a week bar the League Cup games, in which we’ve rotated anyway. So it’s not something we need to be too concerned with just yet.
Other than that there’s not really a lot else going on. Arteta will speak to the press today ahead of the game on Sunday and give us his thoughts on a few bits and bobs in the world of football as well as the mood in the camp. I wonder what he makes of the video on the clubs site showing the team running drills? I guess it’s probably just one of the modern technologies they are used to, but I found it interesting to see the lines on the pitch. My old mate Mike McDonald did a piece on Le-Grove a while back talking about Juego de Posicion and explains it better than me, but the pictures from that drone footage showed exactly what Mike was talking about. That’s heart-warming actually because it is clear that Arteta is taking Pep’s philosophy and it’s also clear that the players are buying in to it. If he can take what Pep knows and sprinkle some of his own creativity and imagination, maybe we can start to get a little excited.
But it’s still early days, only a year ago we were wondering if he’d lost the plot, so I am going to try my damndest to reign it in a little bit and not get carried away. But blow me isn’t it more exciting to feel like this than we have been feeling at times over the last three years, eh?
Catch you all tomorrow.