And it starts again for Arsenal. The World Cup hasn't even kicked off and already the 2014-15 injury crisis is well under way for the defending FA Cup champions. Theo Walcott will miss the tournament entirely and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain came off of Engand's friendly over the weekend with damage to his medial collateral ligament. The injury may actually be good news for Arsenal as it may cause Roy Hodgson to drop the Ox from the squad and prevent him from injuring or exhausting himself more severely during the actual tournament (or, more likely in training since he isn't expected to play a lot of minutes).
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When I read the news about Oxlade-Chamberlain, two things came to mind. First, I wondered which Premier League teams have the most exposure to the risk of injury to their players, and more importantly, their key players. Second, I wondered if this warning shot across the bow might change Arsene Wenger's thinking about exercising Arsenal's right of first refusal on buying back Cesc Fabregas now that Barcelona has reportedly made him available. That second thought quickly morphed into whether the potential for injuries SHOULD influence Wenger's thinking about Fabregas as well. Let's explore starting with which clubs are most at risk with the caveat that this does NOT include the results of transfers in that aren't 100% done (so Diego Costa isn't counted for Chelsea) but it does include players who have already been released or are out of contract (so Bacary Sagna isn't counted on Arsenal's list):
Arsenal: 5 starters on WC rosters & 8 total players
on WC rosters (4 & 7 if the Ox is left out)
|Manchester United: 9 & 14
|Aston Villa: 2 & 2
||Newcastle United: 3 & 4
|Burnley: 0 & 0
||Queens Park Rangers: 1 & 1
|Chelsea: 5 & 10
||Southampton: 3 & 5
|Crystal Palace: 1 & 1
||Stoke City: 3 & 5
|Everton: 5 & 5
||Sunderland: 1 & 2
|Hull City: 2 & 2
||Swansea City: 2 & 2
|Leicester City: 0 & 0
||Tottenham Hotspur: 4 & 6
|Liverpool: 7 & 10
||West Bromwich Albion: 1 & 2
|Manchester City: 8 & 9
||West Ham United: 0 & 1
It isn't a surprise that the most successful clubs in the standings - City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal, Everton, Spurs, and United - lead the way in players in their starting line-ups and squads that will feature over the summer. What is worth noting is the massive risk in the city of Manchester. Nearly all of Manchester United's current expected starting line-up will feature in Brazil and the same is true of most of the big names that they are pursuing in the transfer market. If you buy in to the notion that players who play in a summer tournament and don't get any significant rest for nearly two entire years are at greater risk for injury then you're looking at United even having a greater mountain to climb to get back to the top four because they should be expecting more injuries. It also implies that City and Liverpool will face a tougher time maintaining their finishes in first and second respectively given that more than half of their expected starting line-ups will be exerting themselves for a great deal of the summer. Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton and Spurs appear to be in solid position to gain on the top two given that they have less than half of their expected starting line-ups playing in Brazil.
There is certainly more nuance that can be added to this analysis as the summer goes on as transfers happen and different national teams bow out earlier versus later. Players on teams exiting after the group stages can still get the better part of a month before off-season training begins in earnest versus players playing deep into the tournament who are often thrown right back into training or given a brief vacation that causes them to miss pre-season training and possibly even the start of the season. Another key variable is whether the players who are most at risk play at a position where the club has depth (Chelsea have a lot of attacking midfielders to rotate to get Hazard, Oscar, Willian, and Schurrle some extra rest) while Arsenal are not deep at center back where Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny are both starters in Brazil who could get out of the group stage.
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So Now What?
This brings us back to the Cesc Fabregas question for Arsenal (and similar questions for other teams with big World Cup exposure). The common wisdom among pundits on the Interwebs seems to be that Arsenal should buy Fabregas because a) he's very good and b) their midfielders are always injured so having a spare very good midfielder is a good idea. These analyses always mention that Arsenal have been saying for a few years that the cash is there for premium transfers. They also rightly point out that Fabregas is versatile (he could play some version of any of Arsenal's midfield roles other than the pure holding role that Arteta/Flamini held down last season). These analyses also rightly tend to point out that Fabregas would be better than Arsenal's current solution for any of those midfield spots other than Ozil's spot and MAYBE Ramsey's spot with the caveat that Ramsey has only played at that level for parts of a single season whereas Cesc has proven himself over 5 or 6 seasons at a high level.
Should Arsene Wenger be moved by this sort of analysis and move for Fabregas in an attempt to stave off a similar rash of injuries that submarined Arsenal's title challenge last season? The answer for me really depends on how big that warchest is that pundits seem so confident in.
There is a huge difference between "there's money available" (as has been shown by not inexpensive acquisitions of Giroud, Mertesacker, Cazorla, Podolski, and Ozil over the past two summers) and there's Manchester City/Chelsea/PSG money available. To challenge for a title everyone seems to agree that Arsenal need to spend sigificantly at reserve keeper (Fabianski replacement), right back (Sagna replacement), center back (high quality reserve), top tier starter at holding midfielder, and starting-quality forward to supplant/compliment Giroud. I'd imagine that there are people who would also like to see a Podolski replacement thrown into this mix as well as he has been disappointing with both his goal production and effort getting back to support the defense.
If those are the highest priorities in the summer transfer market then you have to look at the marginal benefit of those acquisitions versus a potential Cesc acquisition. Here are the comparisons that you're making:
- Upgrade from Arteta/Flamini to Bender or Wilshere to Cesc?
- Upgrade from Sanogo to Wilfried Bony or Wilshere to Cesc?
- Upgrade from Jenkinson to Aurier or Wilshere to Cesc?
- Upgrade from Podolski to Balotelli/Remy or Wilshere to Cesc?
- Upgrade from Vermaelen to... well, you get the idea
It isn't that Wilshere to Cesc isn't an upgrade, it is. The question is how big an upgrade is it and what other upgrades are you passing up to get it? I'd argue that adding Cesc to an already crowded midfield of Ozil, Ramsey, Wilshere, Cazorla, Walcott, Ox, [New Holding Midfielder], Rosicky, Arteta, Flamini, and Gnabry is a pretty low priority. If Arsenal can are confident in their ability to afford Fabregas PLUS the types of upgrades listed above then I'm all for it. If the choice is between bringing in Cesc and economizing at holding midfielder or bringing in a top tier holding midfielder and rolling the dice that Ozil/Ramsey/Wilshere/Walcott aren't all injured at the same time again plus Ox/Gnabry take another step forward then there's not doubt which way I'd lean. Buy the premium holding midfielder and look for slightly better luck with injuries this season even in a post-World Cup season. The only clubs in England who can buy players just to keep them out of the hands of rivals (as has been suggested as another motivation with Chelsea also chasing Cesc) are Chelsea and City. No matter what they say about their budget, Arsenal certainly don't have THAT sort of money.