19 December 2014

We gotta rest Alexis...or see him fade as Özil faded a season ago.

Over the next two weeks, Arsenal will play no fewer than five matches. It's not that we're alone in this—after all, almost every other club in the Prem will endure the same slog, some of them perhaps being spared the FA Cup third round, just after New Year's Day. However, collectively, the Prem is alone among the major leagues in playing through the winter holiday season. The fixtures come fast and furious, with little rest between them, not to mention little to no chance for athletes to spend time with family. That problem becomes all the more acute as a club signs foreign players from ever-farther afield. Alexis, for example, will have no chance at all of returning to Chile. Perhaps it's time to reevaluate this madcap stretch of fixtures, if only with an eye to how English clubs fare in European competions?

La Liga, Ligue 1, and Serie A all take breaks of about two weeks. The Bundesliga takes a break of more than month, breaking after this weekend and resuming at the end of January, almost six weeks later. While that may cause a bit of congestion elsewhere, it may also play a role in the strength that clubs like Bayern, Dortmund, and Schalke will carry into the first leg of the knockout stage, by which point they will have only played five matches (in some cases, six), while their Prem opponents will have squeezed in twice that many. Things seem to even out a bit between the first and second legs, when it seems that all clubs involved will have played three matches. What influence might that have on how Prem clubs perform in that first leg and in that second? I seem to remember Arsenal staggering to quite a few first-leg losses before rebounding to some very stirring second leg fightbacks.

Of course, such changes at the league level would have to overcome a great of inertia, tradition, and, yes, financial interests. It's therefore highly unlikely that we'll see any kind of movement there. What about at Arsenal, though? We've already been wracked by injuries so numerous that previous seasons seem positively hale and hearty by comparison. Knowing that we have a glut of contentious matches coming up before the New Year (trips to Anfield, Upton Park, and St. Mary's Stadium, along with visit from QPR squeezed in there), could we at least a bit of squad rotation? Only the QPR match seems to offer us any respite; Liverpool are still dangerous, lurking just five points back despite their worst start in half a century. West Ham and Southampton might be overachieving, but they're both above us nearly halfway through the season. Can we afford to rotate players against them?

We saw last season how much Mesut Özil struggled after a bright start to his first Prem season, and it's perhaps little wonder. After three seasons playing in the milder climes of La Liga (a reference both to weather and style of play), he faded from December on and never really rediscovered that early season form. Winter brings to England lower temperatures and harder pitches, among other obstacles. With Özil as a instructive example, can we at least look to Arsène to rotate Alexis and others? Here's what he had to say:
It is a shock to the system, those that are not used to it. [Foreign players] are all used to a break, but in England there is no stop in the winter. Many of them suffer physically. As well mentally, the players are used to a break over Christmas, to be with their family. The players from South America are used to going home, but of course in England you cannot do it.
Alexis was rested for the trip to Galatasaray, but will that be enough to sustain him? Elsewhere, players like Per Mertesacker, Kieran Gibbs, and Santi Cazorla have all logged heavy minutes and might be at risk of entering the dreaded "red zone", into which key players like Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott tumbled a season ago. It seems, in fact, that the only players who have found rest for their weary legs have been those who, like Ramsey, Wilshere, and Walcott, have fallen to injuries already. The paradox into which we tumble then is that we find ourselves without the depth or variety of options we need to get through the most-congested stretch of the season. What impact will this have on our squad? This time through, we can at least look ahead to AS Monaco and suggest to ourselves that it won't be so bad.

I doubt many of us will shed a tear when we ponder the plights of Chelsea, Man City, Liverpool, Everton, or Tottenham, but there is something there to consider as we look at how well Prem clubs compete against their better-rested rivals on the Continent...