22 March 2013

A Plague of Injuries

Oh, to be healthy. Where would we be if key players had remained fit? Looking at just six key players reveals a total of 65 games missed due to injury. Can you imagine where we'd be if we could cut this plague in half? Holy man. This alone could account for the difference between us and Spurs, or even us and Chelsea. Then, instead of peering up at one or both of them, we'd be squinting down at them, and perhaps nipping at the heels of a few clubs from Manchester.

Before we dive in, let me admit three facts. One, these statistics are a bit dodgy in that I had to compile them myself. I had to compare descriptions of each player's season from the official site to the fixture schedule. Players may have missed games for reasons other than injury only for me to include those missed games here, for example. Two, they may have played in games that they shouldn't have because they were less than 100% (if a Maciej Szczesny calls, tell him I'm out of the office today). Three, the paucity of direct comparisons leaves me with no basis for seeing how much of an impact injuries have had on other teams. In other words, do not lose the forest for the trees when you ponder the chart.

One more caveat, lest I unfairly disparage those who have deputized for the injured: in many cases, those who have stepped in have performed admirably; we really haven't seen any howlers from them as we have in the past. Mistakes? Sure. Bad decisions? Of course. Catastrophes? Thankfully, nope. Of course, with those starters, a loss here or there might have been a draw and a draw here or there might have been a win, but that could be down just as much to the bounce of a ball or a referee's call as to who played.

With that said, what's remarkable in the midst of this tempestuous season is just how ravaged our backline has been--and, by contrast, how good it's actually performed. Yes, we've dropped points that we should have kept all over the place. Of the 75 total games missed, a full 53 have been suffered by various defenders and the #1 goalie.  A conceded goal here or there could make a world of difference when we see how close we are to Chelsea and Spurs.

We're not just talking quality here, either. We've examined the Gibbs-Monreal trade-off in this space before, and I've extolled Mr. Jenkinson's attributes as well. No, the deeper issue is chemistry and communication. Without faulting Monreal, it's possible that a healthy Gibbs would have marked Aaron Lennon more tightly or communicated to Vermaelen more confidently, negating Spurs' second goal at White Hart Lane, converting a 2-1 loss into a 1-1 draw.. An in-form Szczęsny might have stuffed Fulham just once more, converting a 3-3 draw into a 3-2 win. Right there, we've picked up five points on Spurs by taking back two points from them, earning one in the process, and taking two more by beating Fulham. If we had Sagna and Szczęsny for the first match against Chelsea, a 2-1 loss becomes a draw and all of a sudden we're in third place.

Look, I know that this all exists in the 'what-if' realm and is therefore little more than folderol. However, it should provide a little more context as he ponder where we are and where we could (should?) be. Again, at the risk of sounding overly optimistic, it's a bit of a feat to be where we are instead of having fallen further down the table. Should we be content with where we are? Not by a long shot. In fact, thanks to the international lull, we look well-positioned to go on a tidy little run at just the right time.

Chelsea? Spurs? Do you hear that sound? It's that of a superior team catching up to two collections of individuals. We see your individual match-ups (world-class keeper here, in-form striker there) and raise you an actual team. Let the chips fall where they may.

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