Blow for Gunners as Wenger reveals Jack Wilshere setback
Fresh doubts have been raised about Jack Wilshere's recovery from his fractured left fibula after Arsene Wenger revealed that his midfielder would not play again before February and that it remained impossible to put any precise timescale on his comeback.
In an admission that will also concern England manager Roy Hodgson, Wenger described Wilshere's recovery as "slow" and confirmed that the 23-year-old was still not back training intensively.
Wilshere suffered the injury during training for the Community Shield against Chelsea and Wenger's first instinct was that he would be sidelined only for "days".
Wilshere then underwent surgery in September and Wenger predicted that he would return this month.
Yet, asked after Saturday's 4-0 defeat against Southampton for an update on Wilshere's progress, Wenger said: "He will not be back before February.
"That's for sure. I say February, but honestly I don't know. I let him do his recovery. It's going slowly. Once he goes outside to train and is back again into sharp, hard work physically, you count five or six weeks. At the moment, he is not there yet."
It means that Wilshere is not only certain to miss crucial Premier League fixtures next month against Liverpool and Chelsea but is also now a doubt for the Champions League last-16 clash with Barcelona, with the first leg on February 23 at the Emirates.
England's next international fixtures are not until the end of March, against Germany and Holland, but given the history of Wilshere's injury and his previous record, Hodgson will know that he cannot plan with any confidence for his availability at the European Championships this summer.
Wilshere also missed six months of last season with an ankle injury. He has stressed that he will not rush this latest injury, which is a hairline fracture to his left leg, but has described the setback as "mentally the toughest to take", especially as he had shown such good form during pre-season.
The absence of Wilshere has contributed to Arsenal's shortage of central midfielders, although Wenger is in talks with Basle about recruiting Egypt international Mohamed Elneny shortly after the transfer window opens on Friday.
Negotiations are ongoing over a potential £5m transfer, that could rise to around £7m; the talks have so far been positive and the expectation is that there will be little difficulty in agreeing personal terms with Elneny.
As well as Wilshere, Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla have undergone surgery this season and Mikel Arteta is also out indefinitely with a calf injury. It has left Mathieu Flamini and Aaron Ramsey to form the midfield base and, with signs of fatigue clear in the Southampton defeat, Wenger wants to be able to rotate his team, especially now that the FA Cup is looming.
Wenger admitted that the uncertainty about both Wilshere and Danny Welbeck, who has bruising to his knee joint, will make him more likely to spend next month.
"Yes, we are a bit short because of the injuries we have," he said.
"But sometimes, as well, the solution is inside. We are a club which has always given a chance to players we have educated. People forget that sometimes and always want new faces. We have top players inside. Buy, buy, buy is always the solution people see."
The internal solutions are not immediately obvious. Alexis Sanchez will return in January from a hamstring injury but Wenger is clearly also serious about further opportunities for Kieran Gibbs, Gabriel, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Calum Chambers, Alex Iwobi and Jeff Reine-Adelaide.
There are unlikely to be significant changes against Bournemouth today, however, with Wenger seemingly minded to again play the core of the team who were so easily beaten by Southampton.
It was a major missed opportunity, especially after Leicester City had lost to Liverpool, but Arsenal can still go top of the Premier League if they do beat Bournemouth at the Emirates.
Wenger rejected the suggestion that his players had let the pressure affect them and is adamant that they do have the mental and physical reserves to maintain their title challenge.
"When you lose a game like that it's normal you get questioned," he said. "But the answer we can give is the next performance.
"It's always difficult to have the same level in every game. They were sharper physically than us. That can happen on any given day, even if it's not a fatigue. They were a very physical team who stopped us from playing and the wind and conditions were very difficult for us as well."
It was the fourth consecutive game that Wenger fielded the same starting XI but he is confident that fatigue should not have been an issue.
"I believe in this team because they have been winning - all these players are not overloaded with games," he said.