On Thursday this week the nation’s press will get an opportunity to meet Alan Pardew for the press conference ahead of the West Ham game. Once the horror show against Liverpool has been discussed, talk will turn to player availability for the coming weekend. The excitement will be palpable as we find out which of our knackered players are getting closer to that long-awaited comeback. In other words, it’s Thursday, it’s five to two, it’s time for Knackerjack. A little reference for the teenagers, there…
As is often the case when teams have a disappointing season, the number of crocks in the squad is one of the first lines of defence. Undeniably it has been a factor, certainly compared to last season when Krul, Simpson, Coloccini, Cabaye, Gutierrez and Ba all managed at least 32 league starts and even Williamson’s return to fitness dovetailed almost perfectly with Steven Taylor’s achilles injury. The fact is, injuries barely played a part last season at all. Competing in the sphere of tiny margins as we are, it made a huge difference. Look back through last season’s league games and see how many you can pick out as being truly impressive, exciting victories. Maybe half a dozen, several of which were when Cisse & Ben Arfa hit top form in March/April. Much of what was achieved last season was based on grafting and grinding out points. Taking a battering at Loftus Road, Ewood Park and Old Trafford but escaping with a result, for example. Keeping 19 clean sheets in the process.
Consistent team selection was vital in turning defeats into draws and draws into wins: that’s not rocket science, just as it’s no great revelation to point out that when injuries do bite as they have this season you soon see the impact on results and, eventually, confidence. The hope back in the summer was that our squad players – largely untested last season – would be a year older, a year wiser and ready to step up if needed. What we’ve since learned is the likes of Ferguson, Tavernier, Sammy Ameobi and Bigirimana simply aren’t up to the job, at least not yet.
While injuries can’t be cited as the sole reason for a season of disappointment it would be churlish not to recognise them as being an issue . What is slightly more difficult to ascertain is how well the injuries themselves are being handled by the club.
Let’s look at some examples. Here’s a string of numbers for you: 1, 3, 7, 3, 4, 1, 1. Those numbers represent runs of consecutive league games Cheick Tiote has managed this season. His most recent unexplained knock caused him to miss the game at West Brom ending his “run” of one game. That run consisted of his lethargic, rusty display against Sunderland a week earlier. We know from experience that Tiote takes a good 2-3 games to get fully “warmed up” after an absence. Perhaps it is nothing more than bad luck. Perhaps he really has had seven separate injuries in eight months. Probably nothing more than mischief-making to suggest his injuries are being mis-managed.
How about Hatem Ben Arfa? His hamstring strain in late November seemed to be a bad one. Little was said about an expected recovery date. Then, out of the blue, less than three weeks later he’s back and scoring at Craven Cottage. Subbed on 70 minutes “to protect him for the coming games” according to Pardew. We didn’t see him again for three months. Back he came, again somewhat out of the blue, and straight into the starting XI on the plastic pitch of the freezing Luzhniki Stadium. Again subbed in the second half, again he disappears for weeks afterwards. Over a month later – he reappears once more for the game at home to Benfica. Looking decidedly out of shape, “Fatem” has now made four consecutive cameos and is apparently “on the verge” of starting a game.
Davide Santon; tweaks his hamstring at the (real) Stadium of Light, appears in the starting XI against Fulham three days later, lasts 17 minutes before his hamstring goes completely and his season is over.
Fabricio Coloccini; Another vague prognosis following bone damage in his back. “In contention” for the Sunderland game. “Pencilled in” for the West Brom game. “Return postponed” until the Liverpool game. It goes without saying he missed that one too. Who knows, maybe he could have helped keep it down to 5-0…
Ryan Taylor; desperately unlucky to sustain a horror injury back in August. Back in training this month, building up fitness, when a relapse effectively rules him out of the whole of NEXT season.
Yohan Cabaye; Started the season slowly (after 20 minutes of pre-season game time), missed the horror run of winter form but is now back in the side playing every week despite looking utterly wrecked in the second half whenever he plays. It’s worth noting that we’ve picked up an average of 1.32 points per game when Cabaye starts. Contrast that with 0.62 per game when he’s absent and you can understand the temptation to pick him every time. However, whether he’s carrying an injury or simply lacking in stamina there’s no denying that he looks shot after an hour or so whenever he’s played lately.
I have to reiterate that this could all be nothing but bad luck. However, what’s consistently frustrating from a fan’s point of view is the lack of information (or indeed sheer misinformation) that comes from the club. Are the medical staff handling the injuries properly? Are these delayed returns because the rehabilitation isn’t as it should be? Is Pardew deliberately withholding information in order to facilitate “surprise” returns like those of Ben Arfa? Does Pardew even know when players are due to come back? Is it club policy not to announce when they expect a player back from injury?
One thing that’s true of all football fans, particularly when things aren’t going well, is that they want honesty and clarity from their club. Maybe I’m not reading the right newspapers but I truly don’t know exactly what has been wrong with Tiote this season. I have no idea what led the club to believe that Coloccini might have been almost ready three weeks ago when he’s now a “probable” for the trip to West Ham. No one really seems sure why Ben Arfa was deemed fit to play that game in Russia (taking a month to recover) when anyone in the world could see it was a risk.
The problem when information is withheld or when information is vague is that it gives the impression you don’t really know what’s going on. At a time when growing numbers are questioning Alan Pardew’s ability to do his job I feel that this is one area where he, and the club as a whole, could claw back some ground with the fans. A bit of clarity and openness around the injuries within the squad would have perhaps increased faith in the job Pardew is doing. It might even have encouraged a bit more sympathy for his plight – something he could really do with just now…
Author: Paul McIntosh
Follow Paul on Twitter @mcintoshpaul
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