Liverpool’s 5-1 demolition of Arsenal on Saturday has raised fresh questions about the durability of the Gunners' squad, with the threat of the squad ‘burning out’ increasing in the light of the thrashing. £42.4m Mesut Ozil and lead striker Olivier Giroud both put in notably poor performances, looking jaded throughout and even disinterested at times. The former has featured in 35 games of football this season whilst the latter has featured in an incredible 38: the season has only just hit February. Acclaimed centre-back duo Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker have made a combined 74 appearances in this campaign. The risk of severe squad fatigue is there.
Even manager Arsene Wenger admits that the defeat was a concern which “raises questions”, says the BBC. Wenger goes on to say that concentration and pace were poor, which immediately lends itself to a debate on whether the squad can last the season. If the players can’t prepare them mentally or physically for a crucial game in February, how will they manage to control their complacency for a ‘home banker’ as the season wears on?
There is a precedent set by Tottenham in the 2011/12 season, which ended up being Harry Redknapp’s last in charge of Arsenal’s arch-enemies. Spurs were 10 points clear of Arsenal at one point, inches away from overtaking Manchester City into 2nd position as Jermain Defoe couldn’t quite get his toe on a Bale cross, with the score set at 2-2 against City. Their squad was impressive, as good as Arsenal’s is now. Kaboul and King in defence, Modric, Bale, Van der Vaart in midfield, Adebayor and Saha in attack. Yet they lost that game 3-2 to a Balotelli penalty and the season disintegrated. Some blame Redknapp’s tax trial, or the fact that he had half an eye or England. On the pitch, it was evident that the squad were burnt out. The stars had hardly had a rest all season, even played during the Europa League group stage, and now the desire had gone. Easy games like Norwich at home and QPR away were lost.
So might the same thing happen to Arsenal this season? The warning signs are there. The midfield has rotated but the centre of defence, Ozil and the striker have not. Considering that Arsenal were (are) genuine title-challengers, there was an unforgivable lack of spending in January. Even if Julian Draxler wasn’t bought from Schalke, the squad needed improving. A striker, even if just an adequate back-up to Giroud. A new, top-class centre back was also required. And arguably even a goalkeeper, with Wojciech Szczcesny’s occasional tendency to switch off or go through a bad patch of form. But none of these proposed improvements were forthcoming.
The current league position, 2nd, would suggest that Arsenal are flying. They are just a point off top and they are 14 points ahead of United in 7th. But the Gunners are only 8 points ahead of Spurs, and 5 ahead of Liverpool. A win for Spurs at White Hart Lane in March, and there is just a 5 point deficit to be made up by the Lilywhites.
It is impossible to know at this point whether the Anfield defeat was just a blip in an otherwise impressive Arsenal season, or whether it is a precursor to an imminent collapse. Undoubtedly, if Mesut Ozil and Olivier Giroud occupy the same headspace which they occupied on Saturday, then Arsenal may be in the race for 4th rather than the race for 1st.