Arsenal’s players could be forgiven for looking a little leggy in training over the past couple of days. On Tuesday night, they gave their all to record an outstanding victory over Bayern Munich.
Beating a side of Bayern’s calibre is always going to require a huge physical effort, but particularly so given the way Arsenal played. Uncharacteristically, they spent the vast majority of the game without the ball, hassling and harrying the Bayern players in the midfield before sprinting into action on the counter-attack.
The effects on the players were obvious: Aaron Ramsey was withdrawn with a muscular injury, while even the relentless work-rate of Alexis Sanchez could not survive the full 90 minutes. By the time the full-time whistle blew, Arsenal were spent.
With a Premier League match against Everton to come this weekend, Arsene Wenger must be tempted to rotate his squad. A third game in seven days would be a significant stretch for some of these players, and the injury to Ramsey serves as a warning as to the dangers of over-playing your core squad.
However, Wenger must beware disturbing Arsenal’s momentum. The Gunners have now beaten Manchester United, Watford and Bayern in succession, scoring eight goals along the way and conceding none. There is a natural rhythm developing in this team, and too many changes could cause unnecessary disruption.
Brazilian centre-half Gabriel Paulista is one candidate for a start. Although not involved in the last two games, he did start in the win against United, and could easily be rotated in at the expense of one of Per Mertesacker or Laurent Koscielny. One of the great assets of the former Villarreal man is that he seems to operate comfortably alongside either the German or the Frenchman.
Ramsey’s absence will create an opportunity for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to establish himself in the first-team. The England international started Arsenal’s first Premier League match of the season, but lost his place after a needless defensive error led to a West Ham goal. At 22, he’s now of an age where he should be featuring regularly in Wenger’s preferred line-up. Ramsey is out for a month — that should be plenty of time for Oxlade-Chamberlain to stake his claim for a permanent place.
Beyond that, it’s difficult to see where changes could be made. Yes, Olivier Giroud emerged from the substitute’s bench to score once more against Bayern, but implementing him in the starting line-up would require a complete shift in style. Theo Walcott’s speed and movement is currently integral to the way Arsenal set-up to play.
Similarly, neither of the reserve full-backs (Kieran Gibbs and Mathieu Debuchy) can match the balance offered by the first-choice pair of Nacho Monreal and Hector Bellerin. Much of Everton’s threat will come down the flanks, so rotating in this area seems a significant risk.
An injury to Mikel Arteta makes resting Francis Coquelin unthinkable, and Jack Wilshere’s long-term absence means there is no obvious replacement for the deep-lying playmaking skills of Santi Cazorla.
The one consolation for Wenger is that Arsenal’s next game is a Capital One Cup tie against Championship Sheffield Wednesday. That will afford him the chance to rest some weary legs and make full use of his squad.
However, they cannot afford to let up the pace in the Premier League. As exhilarating as the win over Bayern was, the league still represents their best chance of success this season. This is no time to take their foot off the gas. Arsenal’s best players must find their way past Everton, then contemplate some well-earned respite.