by Liam Twomey
No one would blame Arséne Wenger for picking the same starting XI that destroyed Hull City in thrilling style a week ago when Swansea City visit the Emirates Stadium on Monday night.
Arsenal are the Premier League’s form side, unbeaten in 10 games since losing to Tottenham in early February as they battle Manchester City for a second-place finish that would constitute their best for 10 years. Familiarity has bred confidence, quality and consistent results.
But if Wenger does, Roy Hodgson should probably give the game a miss. No Englishman has made more than three starts over the course of Arsenal’s 10-game tear, and none have earned a place in the Gunners’ starting XI in any of the last four Premier League matches.
It is a remarkable state of affairs, particularly in light of what Wenger told reporters prior to last summer’s Emirates Cup pre-season tournament. “I hope we have a core of English national players in the future,” he insisted. “Spain won [the World Cup] with six from Barcelona, Germany with six from Munich. I hope England can win it with six from Arsenal.”
Nor were they idle words. Wenger hatched his plan to build the next great Arsenal side around a domestic core almost three years ago, in the wake of Robin van Persie’s acrimonious defection to Manchester United.
Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Kieran Gibbs and Carl Jenkinson were all tied to long-term contracts in December 2012 and presented as the future of the club. A month later, after much public wrangling, Theo Walcott followed suit. Last summer the domestic drive continued, with Danny Welbeck and Calum Chambers both recruited at considerable expense.
That subsequent events have taken a rather different path cannot solely be attributed to Wenger or the players involved, but it does nevertheless raise serious questions about the career trajectories of a group that were widely expected to mature into key figures for club and country.
Ramsey, the only non-Englishman, is also the only unqualified success story. At 24 he has overcome a horrific leg break to establish himself as a regular starter for one of the most well-resourced clubs in Europe, and last season only a hamstring injury prevented him from rivalling Luis Suarez in the Player of the Year conversation after making a sensational leap forward in his game.
Despite his own moments of promise, Jenkinson never managed to usurp Bacary Sagna and while a season on loan at West Ham has strengthened his Premier League credentials, he will have Mathieu Debuchy and the blossoming Hector Bellerin to contend with on his return to the Emirates Stadium this summer.
With others the picture is no rosier and – as is so often the case with Arsenal – persistent injury is a recurring theme.
“He has prepared and has got over his ankle problems,” Wenger told reporters when the subject of Jack Wilshere was raised last summer. “I think he will have a great season but it’s a very important season for him.” He has made just seven Premier League starts since.
Gibbs’s fitness has also been typically in and out, Walcott hasn’t re-found his rhythm post-cruciate knee ligament injury and what was meant to be a breakout season for Oxlade-Chamberlain has simply broken down too often. The 21-year-old has been managing a groin problem for months and, worse, may yet need surgery in the summer, potentially disrupting his preparations for next term.
The problem with injuries for players at top clubs is that they are more than a personal hindrance. With the competition fierce and stakes high, managers are under pressure to find a high-quality alternative to an injured star. Once found, it doesn’t take much for Plan B to become Plan A.
Santi Cazorla has sparkled more brightly than ever since shifting into Wilshere’s position at the base of the Arsenal midfield, while Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil cost too much and perform too well to be dropped in favour of the less refined Oxlade-Chamberlain. Wenger appears to place greater faith in Welbeck than Walcott on the right flank and Nacho Monreal could keep Gibbs waiting a long time for another opportunity to establish himself at left-back.
There can be no doubt that Arsenal’s returning financial muscle has thrown up additional obstacles to the progress of their domestic contingent, and one suspects it will continue to do so this summer – particularly given Wenger’s public reservations about buying British again.
“English players could have more of a problem when they come from a smaller club to this club because of how big the pressure is,” he told reporters in February. “They go from being regular players at another club to having their position threatened and they have to face competition from inside that they were not used to. That, of course, can be destabilising as well.”
The one cause for optimism is that Arsenal’s English core retains the talent to be crucial to Wenger’s aspirations, but fortune must be friendly for them to prove it so.
If they fail, Hodgson will find it increasingly hard to celebrate the Gunners’ revival as he plots England’s own belated return to relevance.
[Article courtesy of goal.com]