Thursday 27 June 2019

Emery needs his fringe players to the fore as fixture pile-up takes toll

Arsenal manager Unai Emery. Photo: Action Images via Reuters
Arsenal manager Unai Emery. Photo: Action Images via Reuters

Jonathan Liew

Unai Emery looked, and sounded, like a man desperate for a day off. The usual sheen of politeness was still there, but as he surveyed the room after Arsenal's 1-0 win over Huddersfield, the answers were even more clipped than usual, the tone a little wearied.

Yes, Lucas Torreira has quality. No, he wasn't going to comment on the spurious nitrous oxide story. No, he wasn't yet thinking about the Southampton game.

"I need my mind take off for two days," he protested, one of those sentences where, for all the unwieldy syntax, you knew exactly what he meant.

It has, after all, been a gruelling few months. Not just the avalanche of footballing decisions he has had to take in the daily course of his job: the tactics, the substitutions, the training sessions, the transfer strategy, but the other stuff: the intense travelling schedule, the strain of moving and adapting to an entirely new country, answering questions such as why his team had three players booked for diving against Huddersfield, the immense weight that comes with being one of the most significant and scrutinised managerial appointments in the history of the game.

Dragging Arsenal into the post-Wenger era was always going to be a gargantuan challenge; doing it while going 21 games unbeaten and remaining competitive in three competitions is tougher still.

Emery may not be everyone's cup of tea, and his job isn't close to being done, but if anyone's earned a 'two-day mind take-off', it's him.

The bad news is that it only gets tougher from here. The gruelling 1-0 win over Huddersfield, sealed only with Torreira's late bicycle kick, was a warning shot for a team that for all its quality and enterprise still struggles to win games when not at 100pc.

After the big emotional expenditures of Tottenham last Sunday and Old Trafford on Wednesday, this was a more jaded looking performance, and a reminder that Arsenal's resilience, energy reserves and squad depth are about to get their first real test of the season.

Huddersfield was the fifth of a run of 13 games in 41 days, and already the bruising fixture list is taking its toll. Defence is the most immediately pressing area: Rob Holding's season appears to be over after his cruciate ligament injury, Shkodran Mustafi limped off in the second half with a tweaked hamstring, and in any case he and Sokratis Papastathopoulos will both miss the next Premier League game after picking up their fifth yellow cards of the season, and a one-match suspension.

With Calum Chambers unable to be recalled from loan at Fulham, Emery's options at centre-half look increasingly thin.

Captain Laurent Koscielny was named on the bench on Saturday, but hasn't completed 90 minutes since April, and limped off in the recent Checkatrade Trophy game against Portsmouth with cramp.

Nacho Monreal is still feeling his way back to full fitness. Stephan Lichtsteiner can play at centre-half, and those three will probably start against Southampton next weekend if Emery again opts for a back three.

There's also the promising but untested Dinos Mavropanos. But it's far from ideal.

"I don't know how we are going to play next week," Emery admitted. "But we have players."

Fringe

Thursday's game against Qarabag will be another good chance for Arsenal to get some minutes into the legs of their fringe players. And over the next few weeks those fringe players will be needed more than ever.

The games come thick and fast from this point: a new-look Southampton next weekend, then another north London derby, then Burnley, Brighton, Liverpool and Fulham in the space of 10 days.

There are plenty of miles in the legs: Torreira has already played 21 games this season, Mateo Guendouzi, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Aaron Ramsey 20 each. Time, then, for Arsenal's squad to show its worth: your Elnenies, your Nketiahs, your Maitland-Nileses. We may even see the promising young German playmaker Mesut Ozil making an appearance at some point. Bags of potential, that kid.

There used to be a long-standing maxim that league titles were won by the team with the best third-choice striker.

The theory went that the key to a successful league campaign was not in winning when things were going well, but in conjuring up goals in the most trying of circumstances: fixture pile-up, injuries, fatigue, the late double substitution when you're 1-0 down with 10 minutes left.

Arsenal aren't aiming for the Premier League title, and given the rise of the single-striker formation, perhaps the maxim is not quite as relevant as it once was.

But if they can emerge from the exhausting next month still standing, still challenging, still strong, then Arsenal fans really will be able to start dreaming of better things.

© Independent News Service

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