Arsenal’s ignominious Europa League loss last week to Cologne at least had a major consolation for the club. Because BATE Borisov and Red Star Belgrade drew in the other match in the group, Arsenal have still won the group and thus theoretically will gain a more favourable draw in the knockout stages of the competition.
However, for the players involved, there was little, if any, consolation in the defeat. The lacklustre display from Arsenal’s Europa League/League Cup side did little for their chances of being selected for the Arsenal first team. Perhaps even more importantly for the players themselves, it confirmed how far they all have to go to stand any chance of being selected for their countries for next summer’s World Cup.
Will Any of Arsenal’s ‘Reserves’ Make the World Cup?
The World Cup Still Exerts an Enormous Pull
If international football is under threat from the inexorable rise of the club game, the World Cup still exerts an enormous pull on players. Russia may not be the most glamorous of settings for the competition, but a World Cup is still a unique opportunity for a player to appear on a genuinely global stage.
The disappointment of the Ireland and Northern Ireland players who lost out in their World Cup play-offs is evidence that there is still a great desire among players to appear at a World Cup finals. In most countries, even just appearing in a World Cup finals is regarded as a huge achievement.
That is why this time of the season is so hard for players who are not starting games. If they harbour realistic ambitions of making the the 2018 tournament in Russia next summer, they must first play for their club sides on a regular basis. England manager Gareth Southgate reminded everyone of that when he discussed Jack Wilshere’s chances of making England’s final 23-man squad for Russia.
Nothing to Fear?
Wilshere is not alone among Arsenal players in fearing that they will not make it to Russia. Perhaps more than any other club, Arsenal have a large number of ‘reserves’ or ‘squad players’. They must be nervous about their chances of being selected for the World Cup by their international managers.
Perhaps the Arsenal reserve who has least to fear is Mohamed Elneny. Elneny is a regular for the Egyptian side, who have qualified for a World Cup for the first time since 1990. He is likely to be at least a member of the Egyptian squad, if not the first team, in Russia. However, for several of his team-mates in the Arsenal ‘stiffs’, the outlook is not nearly as promising.
The Problems of Strength in Depth
Olivier Giroud faces a double challenge to make the French first team in Russia. He will have to dislodge Arsenal’s new £50 million striker, Alexandre Lacazette, from the starting line-up for both Arsenal and France.
Since his move to the Emirates from Lyon, Lacazette has been Arsenal’s first-choice striker. This makes his absence from key away games at Liverpool and Manchester City all the more astonishing. In both those games, Arsene Wenger did not select Giroud instead of Lacazette. Instead, he started them both with Alexis Sanchez up front, in a position that clearly does not suit the Chilean’s desire to roam all over the pitch. Nevertheless, Lacazette has surely done enough now, especially after excelling against Tottenham in the North London derby, to ensure that he starts all of Arsenal’s future games.
The saving grace for Giroud may be that he is likely to be on the bench for Arsenal’s league games. As a result, he may get enough minutes to persuade Didier Deschamps, the France manager, to select him for Russia even if he is no longer a first choice at Arsenal.
In addition, Deschamps has a number of very similar strikers in Kylian Mbappé, Ousmane Dembélé and Lacazette. They are all fast, mobile and good at linking play, but they lack Giroud’s height, physical presence and aerial prowess. As he constitutes such a perfect Plan B, Giroud may yet make it to Russia.
Willy, Wally and Welly
The outlook for Arsenal’s trio of English reserves is not nearly so good. Jack Wilshere, Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck – or “Willy, Wally and Welly”, as they have been christened by some Arsenal fans – are almost certain not to make it to Russia. This is unless they can dramatically improve their performances and at least merit inclusion in Arsenal’s first-team squad.
For Jack Wilshere, the situation must be particularly galling. A few years ago, he was a mainstay of Roy Hodgson’s England. Hodgson tried to reinvent him as an Andrea Pirlo-style midfielder who could provide both defensive solidity and passing ability. Since then, however, Wilshere has fallen from grace spectacularly. Of course, that is largely down to the series of injuries that he has suffered. The most recent of these was him breaking his ankle while on loan at Bournemouth. Nevertheless, the simple fact is that he is now a long way from ever fulfilling the potential that he first showed as a teenager nearly ten years ago.
The same is true of Theo Walcott. The fact that Walcott is still at Arsenal, even though he is no longer a first-choice player and hasn’t been since Wenger switched to using wingbacks earlier this year, is seen by some Arsenal fans as evidence of his lack of ambition. They reason that if Walcott was genuine in wanting to play for his country he would have left Arsenal by now. He has little or no chance of winning a first-team place ahead of Sanchez or Özil. Instead, by staying at the club, even though he now only appears to be selected for the second-string competitions, he seems to be showing that ultimately he is happy just to pick up his enormous salary without doing anything to justify it.
A More Complex Issue?
The third of Arsenal’s ‘unholy’ trinity of England players is Danny Welbeck. His situation is perhaps the most complex of the three. Welbeck is a marvellously versatile player who can play either as a striker or as a left-sided winger or “attacker”. Like Wilshere, he was a regular for Roy Hodgson. At one point, he appeared to play more often and score more goals for England than for either of his club sides, Manchester United or Arsenal.
Southgate is reportedly still an admirer. However, he has gone on record as saying that he will not repeat the mistakes of previous English managers. One of these is taking injured players to international tournaments. Sadly, Welbeck, for all his dynamism, seems to be permanently injured these days. Even in the defeat against Cologne he came off injured at half-time. Hopefully, that was just precautionary, but it is a reminder of the long-term injury troubles that have blighted his career.
The Final Verdict
All of these five Arsenal players will draw comfort from the fact that in the past players have recovered from terrible injuries in time to make an impact at a major summer tournament.
Probably the best example is Marco Van Basten. He missed most of Milan’s Serie A-winning season of 1987/88 through injury but returned for the club’s last few games. Then, refreshed and revitalised, he starred for Holland as they won the 1988 European Championship.
At the moment, however, even the most ardent or one-eyed Arsenal fan would struggle to justify any comparison between Van Basten and Giroud, Wilshere or Welbeck. They are all more likely to be left behind than to star at the World Cup next summer.