Arsenal | Season already in the balance?

Arsenal | Season already in the balance?

Arsene Wenger even said it himself, according to Arsenal.com, in response to the injuries and Liverpool loss, “We have five big games when the team is not completely ready.”

A tough opening month that saw a home loss to Liverpool and an upcoming trip to Old Trafford, combined with a couple of European dates with Udinese meant the squad would need to be ready from day one.

It was understood all summer that Arsenal was never going to start at its best. With all the comings and goings, mostly goings, during the summer transfer window, and preexisting injuries, the team was already looking to plug some temporary holes to start the season.

What Wenger did not expect, nor could any manager, were the injuries and suspensions that plagued Arsenal already one week into the season.

Alex Song and Gervinho are both serving three game suspensions for their part in dealing with Joey Barton on opening week. Emmanuel Frimpong, Song’s replacement, will miss the United match because of his red against Liverpool. The ever-fragile defence suffered injury losses in Kieran Gibbs, Johan Djourou and Laurent Koscielny, leaving Carl Jenkinson at right back and Bacary Sagna out of position at left.

With all the gaps in the lineup, one point in two games might not be the biggest problem for Arsenal right now. Two matches wont make or break the season, but a whole month could, just ask Wenger about March or April 2011.

Last year Arsenal and Manchester split their matches, both earning 1-0 victories at home. Getting any points from United this year would be a great feat for the Gunners, especially now with a depleted roster.

Here is what Saturday’s lineup might look like and how the players have fared against United in the past.

Goalkeeper

As my colleague noted in his post a few weeks back, Wojciech Szczesny at goalkeeper seems to be a position of stability right now for the squad. He even has a bit of experience against United.

His first start in the EPL was at Old Trafford in the 1-0 loss. He outperformed Edwin van der Sar saves-wise with three. The lone goal was the memorable Ji-Sung Park neat header from Nani’s cross. Szczesny even survived a Wayne Rooney PK, mostly because Rooney skied it. At the Emirates however, Szczesny came away with a shutout, two saves and an Arsenal 1-0 victory.

Compared to this time last year, goalkeeper is a definite strength for the squad.

Defence

The trip to Manchester last year saw a back four of Gael Clichy, Sebastien Squillaci, Koscielny and Sagna. The home match saw Djourou in for Squillaci, only to replace him after 70 minutes due to injury.

Clichy is gone; Squillaci is far down the depth chart and Koscielny is likely out, he had a similar injury last year in which he sat out two weeks. Let’s assume Djourou, Gibbs and fellow left back Armand Traore will all still be out Sunday.

That leaves a prospective line up of Sagna at left, Vermaelen and Ignasi Miquel in the middle with Carl Jenkinson at right.

Sagna could play out of position again at left, but Wenger could go either way depending on match-ups with the United wings. In last year’s fixtures with United, Sagna made a total of 6 tackles, 6 interceptions and won 13 duels.

Having Vermaelen healthy is a plus, but starting two rookies in the back at Old Trafford is a big risk; a risk that Sir Alex Ferguson will look to take advantage of.

Midfield

At this point, it is unknown whether Nasri is staying or going, when Jack Wilshere will be healthy and if Wenger will buy any midfielders within the week.

The worst case scenario for Sunday would see a midfield without either of those mainstays from last year. Suspensions to Song, Gervinho and Frimpong leave a potential midfield of Aaron Ramsey, Thomas Rosicky, Andrey Arshavin, Henri Lansbury and Theo Walcott.

But really, your guess is as good as mine right now with the potential midfield. Excluding Arshavin and Walcott, who will most likely line up on the wings, the remaining midfielders on the roster had a total of only 14 starts for Arsenal last year in the Premier League. Ramsey did, though, score the lone Arsenal goal against United last year.

The only two to start were Ramsey and Rosicky, while Lansbury spent time in the Championship at Norwich. The midfield at Old Trafford could see debuts from new signings Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ryo Miyaichi and Joel Campbell. This extremely inexperienced midfield would do well to even record a 1-0 loss that last year’s veteran squad produced.

RVP

Barring any injury, Van Persie will see the start as the lone striker. He scored 18 goals last year in only 20 games. He average over one goal every 100 minutes, but has yet to make his presence felt in two matches this season.

Against United, RVP created the goal for Ramsey in the win, but coming off his injury only came on in the 64th minute at Old Trafford. Maybe a full 90 from him is all Arsenal needs to overcome United, but that is just wishful thinking. There is experience on the bench at striker with Marouane Chamakh and Nick Bendtner, but Chamakh is a ghost of himself now and Bendtner could be gone by weeks end.

In summary, Arsenal’s lineup for Sunday’s match at Old Trafford will be a shadow of what was fielded last year and expectations aren’t high for the Gunners against their rivals. The season isn’t ultimately in the balance during these 90 minutes in August, but unless Wenger doesn’t quickly fill the holes in his lineup the lost points will start to add up.