It's that dreaded time of the season again when Arsenal's players head off to the four corners of the world to play for their countries. Usually I detest international breaks but this one is an exception, as it could actually be of some benefit to Arsenal for a few reasons.
Firstly it gives some of Arsenal's injured players two weeks to regain their fitness before they have to play again. With any luck that should mean Cesc Fabregas, Alex Song and Theo Walcott will be available for their next game at home to Blackburn Rovers on Saturday April 2nd. If Arsenal are to have any chance of keeping pace in the title race it's vital they have as many of their best players as possible available.
Cesc is Arsenal's captain and best player and when he doesn't play the team are missing their most creative player. It's no coincidence Arsenal have been struggling to score goals in recent games with Cesc missing, as statistically he creates more chances per game than any other player in the top five European leagues. It hasn't been helped by Arsene Wenger's insistence on starting Samir Nasri in a wide role when he is clearly the best player to cover for Cesc when he is out. In recent games Nasri has been switched into a central role after roughly an hour, as the boss shows some signs that he is giving in to the demands of the fans.
I read a startling statistic on Twitter yesterday about Arsenal's performances without Alex Song this season. Apparently Arsenal have won 71% of their league games when Song has started this season, but their win percentage without him in the team is 0%. It's an amazing statistic and it illustrates how important he has become to the team. It also illustrates the fact that Abu Diaby and Denilson are not capable of filling in for him when he is unavailable. Another thing it illustrates is that the boss was wrong in not buying cover him last summer or in the January transfer window either.
The form of Walcott has been pretty erratic at times this season, but he has shown his ability to score goals when they are needed. Unfortunately he has missed a lot of games through various injuries, but he was an integral part of the team when it looked so impressive in the Premier League throughout January. At that stage of the season Arsenal looked like they were playing football capable of beating any team in the world, but when the injuries started to return their form slipped.
If things go well enough over the next two weeks Arsenal will be short of only two players from the team that performed so admirably in those games. Unfortunately the two players missing from that team are Wojciech Szczesny and Johan Djourou, and their absence is being sorely felt. The goalkeeping crisis at Arsenal has been quite unbelievable this season as first Lukasz Fabianski and then Szczesny picked up injuries in strange circumstances. It meant Manuel Almunia was recalled from the wilderness to strike fear into the heart of every single Arsenal fan, as he rushes from his goal to cause mayhem in the Arsenal defence. I had hoped to have seen the last of him in an Arsenal shirt, and after Saturday's performance there is every chance he will be replaced by 41 year old Jens Lehmann in the team.
To be fair to Almunia I'm sure he thought his Arsenal career was over, and it looked like he would find a new club in January. When Fabianski got injured he was kept as cover for Szczesny, but even Vito Mannone was more likely to start than him. Mannone then picked up an injury on loan to Hull City, and when Szczesny damaged his finger my greatest fears were realised, as Almunia made his return to first team duty.
In my opinion he has never been good enough to perform at the highest level, but he is a good shot stopper. However, there is so much more to goalkeeping than just shot stopping, and he has proved time and again that he doesn't have the capabilities to deal with many of the other aspects of his role. Time and again last season he stuck to his line when he should have advanced, and then he eventually decided to advance when he should have stayed. It leads to the defenders have no faith in him, and that in turn leads to players making decisions they otherwise would not make.
It seems to me he has a problem with his concentration as well, as he showed on Saturday against West Brom. There was very little for him to do throughout the match, but all of a sudden he raced from his goal for no apparent reason to hand West Brom their second goal. Surely a goalkeeper who has been concentrating on the game could not have made such a ridiculous decision. As I have said already though I do feel sorry for him because he has been forced back into the team due to circumstances, and I really don't think he is mentally right for the role any more.
The real crunch for Arsenal will come when they face The Spuds, Liverpool and "Manure" within 14 days of each other in the second half of April and the start of May. If by some miracle both Johan Djourou and Szczesny can manage to recover from their injuries for those games there is a chance Arsenal can actually get the results they need. With only the league left to play in there will be hopefully no additional injuries, and our two main challengers for the league are still involved in other competitions.
"Manure" play Chelsea in the Champions League and Man City in the FA Cup, and as it stands they are struggling defensively with injuries and suspensions too. The tackle which earned Johnny Evans a red card against Bolton was a very bad one in my opinion, but all the so-called experts seem to have decided "he's not that type of player", and he was going for the ball. Try telling that to Bolton's Stuart Holden who now faces a six month lay off as a result of the incident.
When Owen Coyle was asked about the tackle after the game he chose not to talk about it, and concentrated on his player instead. Do you think he would have held back his opinion if it was an Arsenal player who was the culprit? I doubt it very much, but everybody seems to be afraid to voice their opinions on Alec Fergusson, as he permanently flaunts the rules with regard to TV interviews and just about anything else he wants. Don't forget this is a man who got the club doctor to testify that he had a bad case of diarrhea to get him off with a charge of driving in the hard shoulder of a motorway to avoid traffic. Do you really believe he was suffering from such an affliction?
Finally for today don't forget to keep your fingers crossed for the safe return of Robin Van Persie from the current international break. Arsenal have suffered badly in the past when RVP has played for his country and picked up injuries, and they can't afford for that to happen again. There would be no point in all of the other players recovering from injury if RVP was to pick one up himself, as his goals will be crucial if Arsenal are to have any chance of winning the league.
That's it for today.
Here's a little bit of Lehmann in action.
See You Tomorrow.