The season’s climax is approaching. There are now just eight Premier League games between now and the end of the campaign, and with Arsenal battling it out for a Champions League place each one could feel like a cup final. There may even be a real final on the horizon, with Arsenal having drawn Reading in a favourable FA Cup semi-final tie. With so much at stake, Arsene Wenger will be delighted to be on the verge of welcoming some hardened veterans back in to his squad.
Arsenal have been without Mikel Arteta since the end of November, when he limped off in the 67th minute of a 2-0 win over Borussia Dortmund. It was initially anticipated that he would miss a mere matter of weeks, but in January the club decided to send him for ankle surgery to correct a longstanding calf problem.
After more than four months on the sidelines, the club captain is now ready to return to training. It’s not immediately obvious that Arsenal have missed him. In his absence, Francis Coquelin has emerged as the first-choice holding midfielder, giving Arsenal’s midfield the energy and power that Arteta lacks.
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However, the Spaniard still has a significant contribution to make at Arsenal. While Coquelin’s inexperience can sometimes show in his decision-making on the ball, Arteta is an impeccable distributor from the base of the midfield. There will certainly be matches in which he can be deployed alongside Coquelin to enable Arsenal to control the tempo of the game. He could also become an effective substitute, coming on to help close out victories with some timely keep-ball.
Arteta remains an influential figure in the dressing room, enormously respected by the rest of the playing staff. His leadership should help Arsenal’s younger players navigate a tense finale to the season.
Mathieu Debuchy is another whose return could have a major impact. The luckless Frenchman has been out since January with his second major injury of the season, having dislocated his shoulder after a push from Stoke’s Marko Arnautovic.
While he has been recuperating, another young star has excelled. Hector Bellerin’s tireless displays have been one of the most positive surprises of Arsenal’s season. However, Debuchy is expected to reclaim his place as soon as he has regained the requisite stamina to last 90 minutes. He’s superior to Bellerin in the air and has a more developed positional sense. What’s more, Wenger will be keen not to overplay the Spaniard in his breakout season. Debuchy’s availability will afford Bellerin some well-deserved rest.
One returning player whose place in the side isn’t quite so obvious is Jack Wilshere. At the start of the season, Wenger remodelled his midfield to include Wilshere in a 4-1-4-1 system, with mixed results. However, Arsenal’s shape has evolved since then and it’s difficult to see Wilshere starting ahead of the likes of Coquelin, Aaron Ramsey and Santi Cazorla. He may have to bide his time on the bench for some time yet.
This weekend, Arsenal face Liverpool in the Premier League in what is arguably the most important fixture remaining in their schedule. If the Gunners can secure the victory, they will move nine points ahead of Brendan Rodgers’ side and have one foot in the Champions League.
None of these players are likely to be deemed ready to start, but their mere presence in the squad will be a significant boost to the Gunners. Arsenal started the campaign decimated by injuries, but seem set to finish with a squad close to full strength and laced with valuable experience.
Read more from James McNicholas, AKA @Gunnerblog