Arsenal’s title challenge has been derailed by injuries, particularly to Theo Walcott, Mesut Ozil, and Aaron Ramsey, which caused their attack to grind to a halt. If Arsenal want to contend for the title next season, the Gunners must look to mitigate the cost of potential injuries and decrease the risk of injury when it comes to these three players, in particular.
While watching Arsenal’s victory against Hull City, one could not fail to notice an improvement in Arsenal’s attack, compared to past handful of matches. With both Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey on the pitch for the first time since Boxing Day, Arsenal had their two best attacking players back on the pitch. With the return of Aaron Ramsey came the return of his intelligent running, his uncanny ability to place himself in dangerous areas, and his all-around midfield excellence. Looking at the British core of Arsenal (Aaron Ramsey, Kieran Gibbs, Jack Wilshere, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Theo Walcott), Aaron Ramsey has created quite a gulf in quality between him and the rest of his British compatriots. With the return of Mesut Ozil came the return of his passing vision and execution, an impetus to move the play forward, and his mastery of time and space.
It is not surprising that Arsenal have struggled to create chances and have looked stale in attack, with these two out of the side. Therefore, one could argue Ozil’s and Ramsey’ irreplaceability to Arsenal’s attack. Based on a combination of their ability and their set of attributes, that argument makes sense. However, this author would also like to add Theo Walcott’s name to that list, making it a trio of currently irreplaceable players. While Walcott certainly has his limitations, his combination of pace and finishing represents a unique set of skills, crucial to maximizing Arsenal’s attacking potential. In fact, for that reason, Walcott is evidence that players should not be defined by the position they play, but by their attributes, which can be deployed in various locations on the pitch. His threat of pace and ability to finish pushes back lines deeper, potentially creating more space for Arsenal’s midfielders to exploit between the midfield and back line. Walcott also increases the value of Olivier Giroud’s style of play. Walcott gives Giroud a better target for those flicked headers and those balls he plays in behind when he has his back to goal. So one would find it difficult to argue that Theo Walcott is Arsenal’s best attacking player, one could certainly argue that his unique nature makes him one of the most important.
If one looks at Arsenal’s season, one can only wonder about how Arsenal’s season would have played out if any pairing of Ozil, Ramsey, and Walcott had been fit for Arsenal at every point of the season. While they may not have won the league, Arsenal would have had a decent opportunity to finish with a points total in the 83-87 point range, enough to stay competitive in the title race for the whole season, with a chance of winning the league. Obviously, random variation (better known as luck), with respect to injuries, marred Arsenal this season. However, that does not mean that Arsenal could not have protected themselves against the effects of injury or taken steps to decrease the risk of injury. Going forward, if Arsenal want to contend for the league without heavily relying on positive random variation (good luck) when it comes to injuries, Arsenal need to acquire players who can help mitigate the cost of an injury and/or show an increased willingness to rest these key attacking players.
Player Acquisitions: Multiple Ways to Protect Against the Same Problem
Arsenal could sign players who can replace what Mesut Ozil, Aaron Ramsey, and Theo Walcott bring to Arsenal’s attack, adding depth to those particular attacking roles. This could work with respect to Theo Walcott. Arsenal would be looking to find a player with a pace who can be a threat on goal. While Arsenal may not be able to find someone as potent as Theo Walcott in that role, they could sign someone like Ezequiel Lavezzi to operate in that role. If an experienced option cannot be acquired, then Arsenal could look to sign a relatively raw young player with plenty of pace, allowing him to create havoc and chances. While these players may not have fully developed, their pace allows them to make an impact at the highest level of English football (think of Nicholas Anelka or Michael Owen).
However, finding adequate replacements for Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil would prove more challenging. When it comes to Aaron Ramsey, how many all-around midfielders with his ability to identify and occupy dangerous positions exist in world football? More importantly, how many of those players are available to be signed, and would either be able and willing to play in a holding role beside Ramsey or be willing to be the manager’s second option in that all-around central midfield role? Few, if any. Therefore, it is unlikely that Arsenal would succeed in mitigating the cost of a Ramsey injury using that strategy, unless they signed someone like Javi Martinez. When it comes to Mesut Ozil, Arsenal would need to look for someone who can operate as a creative No. 10, but also operate/stay wide as an auxiliary winger (as Ozil does to both create and exploit space), and has a direct style of play. In this author’s opinion, those final two traits help to separate Mesut Ozil from Santi Cazorla, a player who has a much greater preference for central positions relative wide positions. Players who can operate as the primary creator and primary pitch balancer represent a tiny number of No. 10s (potentially Mesut Ozil is in a class of his own in this respect). Therefore, it is unlikely that Arsenal find a player who can replace those attributes of Ozil.
Arsenal can reduce the cost of losing two of their attacking trio to injury by having more elite-level players in high-leverage attacking positions. Looking at another team in London, Chelsea appear to have heavily leveraged their attacking ability on the health of Eden Hazard. If they sign a center forward like a Diego Costa, then they could cushion the blow of a Hazard injury by focusing the attacking system to take more advantage of a quality player like Costa. When it comes to Arsenal there are two high-leverage attacking positions that could be upgraded in the summer, center forward and the advanced position on the left. Having better players in those positions could help Arsenal cushion the blow of simultaneous injuries to two of Ozil, Ramsey, or Walcott. While there are options that could significantly improve the advanced left position (Julian Draxler, Antoine Griezmann, Arda Turan, Marco Reus (though he is unlikely to be available), etc.), the ability to purchase a significant upgrade at center forward could prove more challenging. It seems that Chelsea will do what they can to sign Diego Costa, and unless Costa has some intrinsic preference to play for Arsenal, it is unlikely that Arsenal could out-spend their London rivals. It is unlikely that the center forwards who moved last summer (Gonzalo Higuain, Edinson Cavani, Radamel Falcao, etc.) will move this summer. This leaves Arsenal relying on some dominoes to fall to sign someone like a Karim Benzema, relying on Bayern Munich’s willingness to sell Mario Mandzukic, or taking a risk on a talent like Mario Balotelli in an effort to substantially upgrade the center forward position.
Given the potential difficulty and cost of finding substantial upgrades, Arsenal could look to purchase players that give the side variation in attack. Instead of looking to purchase someone who is better (someone who has a high absolute value), Arsenal could look to acquire players who fill deficiencies in the squad (someone who provides a high marginal value). This could mean adding more pace and direct running to the side, particularly at center forward, allowing the club to cope better with loss of Theo Walcott or Aaron Ramsey. Another obvious deficiency in Arsenal’s attack is the lack of an individual who can create havoc with the dribble. As this author has written in the past, Arsenal lack a player who can individually force an opponent out of their team shape by beating their marker with the ball. This player does not need to have the insane dribbling ability of a Julian Draxler (though that would certainly push Arsenal to a new level) to make a significant impact. He just needs to represent a significant marginal increase compared to those in the squad. An acquisition like Josip Drmic would provide Arsenal with some much needed selfish individual skill. By having a player like this, Arsenal have another way to break defenses down and create chances, especially when the pass-and-move game is operating below the standard Arsenal currently require to score. In fact, the loss of Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil saw Arsenal’s pass-and-move game become a pass-and-stand game, which at its worst became a pass-and-turnover game. Having a selfish dribbler could have helped Arsenal to earn more points when both Ozil and Ramsey could only watch from the sideline, and would help to mitigate the cost of future injuries to the duo.
Rest Your Most Important Players When It Is Low-Leverage
While the summer can be used to acquire players to help mitigate the cost of a potential injury to Arsenal’s vital attacking trio, increased squad rotation could help as well. While Theo Walcott’s injury is not associated with being overplayed, the same is harder to say for Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil. Both suffered muscle injuries, after playing a large amount of fixtures, with little to no rest. This may have been the driving force behind the injury Aaron Ramsey suffered and for Mesut Ozil’s drop in form. Their injuries may have been avoided if Arsene Wenger had an increased willingness to rest his two star players and trust in the rest of the squad.
While there is value in consistently choosing the same squad, allowing a side to have greater fluidity and cohesion in attack, there is also a cost in terms of fitness and injury risk. That means that the manager must find that equilibrium point where the marginal benefits of starting XI stability equal the marginal costs, such as decreased fitness and increased injury risk. Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Ozil, and Theo Walcott do not need to play every game against clearly inferior competition. Arsenal do not need to fire on all cylinders to take maximum points. Against weaker sides, Arsenal can often leave one or two members of this trio out of the side, without having much of an impact on their probability of winning. There is the only added value in dominant 3-0 win, compared to a convincing 2-0, is one goal in goal difference. In those cases where the marginal benefit of starting Ramsey, Ozil, or Walcott is minuscule, Wenger should look to take the opportunity to rest at least one of his most valuable players. And it is not like Arsenal do not have options that they can rotate into those positions (though not necessarily into those roles). Against inferior sides, Arsenal can have Jack Wilshere or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain start instead of Aaron Ramsey; they could have Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Serge Gnabry, Tomas Rosicky, etc. start instead of Theo Walcott; they could have Jack Wilshere, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Santi Cazorla, etc. start instead of Mesut Ozil. This could help to reduce the risk of injury to this key trio and keep them fresher/fitter for matches where their added quality could mean the difference between 3 points or dropping points.
Arsenal have quite a few talented attacking players, but the trio of Mesut Ozil, Aaron Ramsey, and Theo Walcott stand ahead of the rest with respect to their importance to Arsenal’s attack. They have proven their value by their play on the pitch and their absence due to injury. Arsenal should look to acquire players to help mitigate the cost of potential injuries to these players in the summer, while having an increased willingness to rotate the squad during the season (and the former can certainly help Arsenal do the latter). If Arsenal do this, they can decrease the risk of injuries to this trio derailing their attacking, allowing them to contend for the league next season.