You can’t build around the physically flaky

Date published: Monday 30th November 2015 11:00

Arsenal’s game against Norwich somewhat inevitably ended with another couple of players being injured. According to the excellent arsenalreport, the Gunners now have eight major players out injured.

All sides suffer injuries, but famously and I think we can now say, laughably, Arsenal seem to always have a lot of important players out, on a consistent basis. It’s not just the occasional season, it’s every season. Some of it is the type of bad luck that you can do nothing about, some of it is outright negligence – such as how Alexis Sanchez has been treated – but on top of that, you do wonder to what degree their season-in, season-out litany of injuries are also down to the physical and even mental nature of the players they employ. They just don’t have many tough men in their squad.

Tough doesn’t have to mean psychotic hard, it doesn’t even have to mean big and muscular. Tough just means you are physically resilient and mentally strong. It probably helps if you don’t have a will-o-the-wisp physique, but tough players come in all shapes and sizes.

Are Arsenal players often too slight and not strong, or tough enough? You wouldn’t say that of Sanchez but Theo Walcott, for example, looks easy to hurt in a way that, say, Harry Kane doesn’t. If Kane ran into you, it’d cause you great pain because he’s a big wall of hard meat. If Walcott ran into you, it’d be like someone trying to knock you over with a goose feather quilt. Same goes for Danny Welbeck, Aaron Ramsey, Santi Cazorla and Mesut Ozil. Even the robust physical specimen that is Olivier Giroud looks like he’d be out for three weeks if you just ruffled his hair. He might have a great body for the gym, but that doesn’t make you tough.

Jack Wilshere looks built solidly but clearly can’t take a hard tackle or three. And if, for whatever reason you can’t, how long is it worth persisting with them for? Why will things ever change? Sometimes you doubt you’ll ever see Wilshere play for three months consecutively. But do you think that about Jimmy Milner? No. You and I both know you could keep running Milner over in a big car and he’d keep getting back up for more. Milner isn’t as skilful as Wilshere but he’s a damn sight more useful for his team because he’s always fit and available. Milner isn’t built like a brick outhouse, but he’s tough.

Arsene Wenger loves a skilful player and you can see why, but tough physicality isn’t or shouldn’t be a dirty word in football. Having strong, resilient players is important but his players don’t seem assessed for toughness. It is self-evidently limiting to a team’s success to have a lot of players who either get hurt easily or simply won’t play if they’re not 100% fit.

However, outside of Arsenal’s woes, there are two armed camps on this issue. On one side are the fanny merchant worshippers who consider all tough physicality as an expression of grunting idiot brutality which belongs in the past. On the other is the proper football man’s man who considers a bloody head bandage as proof of your quality as a proper player and as a male of the species. He is contemptuous of players who won’t, as their cliche goes,  “play with a niggle”. Each side seems too extreme.

We saw this debate open up over Daniel Sturridge when his manager sort of half suggested that his latest pain may be as much in his head as in his foot. Quickly, someone like Sturridge can become emblematic of the pampered footballer who won’t put a shift in and play through the pain. It becomes an almost moral issue. Get out there and play you lazy sod. Is that harsh? Sometimes yes, but sometimes no.

It’s ironic really, as medical attention has never been better. One-on-one private healthcare is the norm. No player has to queue up in A & E with the drunks who have eaten a glass door, just to see a half-asleep junior doctor hacking off someone’s leg with a carving knife whilst removing a turkey baster from someone’s bottom. You’ll be flown around the world to get the best of the best treatment available.

You’ve got personal medical attention, physical recuperation and psychological help available every day of every week. You play on great pitches and play less football than any other generation of successful players and the football you do play is less physically aggressive than it ever has been. The rules have even been changed to stop players getting injured. And yet so many are out injured that you’d think the exact opposite was true.

Is it just possible that this intense medical attention to fitness and injuries has turned some players into hypochondriacs, or has led them to believe that unless you are in peak fitness you shouldn’t play and thus, because you’ve always got a bit of a strain, or some pain somewhere, you never feel 100% and get into a cycle of injury.

I was told by a cruel games master that when you’re batting in cricket, the more scared of the ball you are, the more likely you are to get hit and to get hurt. I’m not sure he had any statistics to back this up but I can tell you it was certainly true for me. Braver lads than me never got hit. It is tempting to think that the more self-conscious about your physical health you become, the more paranoid you become about being injured, the more likely it is to happen.

Back in the day, when if you were not prepared to play with a kneecap hanging off, then you were not fit to call yourself a man, players would really damage themselves, often for life. That’s clearly not right either. It’s good that we’ve progressed from the ‘medical attention’ of simply having your thighs rubbed with hot soap by an ex-army PE officer while a man in a sheepskin coat shouts at you.

But when you’ve got someone like Sturridge who has missed 50% of games he could have played in, even a generous manager could be forgiven for learning to do without them permanently. I also wonder what it does for team morale when you’ve got hard working players who rarely miss a game except with serious snappage, and others who are in and out all of the time with minor injuries. I wonder if you’re Jimmy Milner, getting up after being run over for the 15th time that day, and you look across to Sturridge stroking his foot gently and wincing and think, bloody hell, I’m doing all the graft here. It could be bad for team morale.

You can’t plan a team around physically flaky players. But you can around tough players. Too many skilful lightweight flakes and not enough skilful tough nuts, that’s been Arsenal’s problem for years and it may increasingly be football’s greater problem too.


John Nicholson

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