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Arsenal must face double-headed fitness monster

Since the Premier League’s resumption, Arsenal have suffered both season-ending injuries and a lack of match-sharpness. They must now face the double-headed monster.

Due to the coronavirus-enforced break, Arsenal’s players are about as rusty as a squeaky bike chain. And the team has already suffered the consequences of that, with bouts of muscular injuries giving the poleax to Sokratis, Pablo Mari, Cedric Soares, Lucas Torreira, Bernd Leno, and now Gabriel Martinelli out for often indeterminate amounts of time due to the difficulty of rehab with COVID-19 restrictions still in place in the UK.

It is putting a serious strain on the already stretched squad, and as more injuries inevitably crop up, Arsenal will have to exercise extreme caution in the way they train, play, and work tactically. Mikel Arteta, in particular, will have a lot of work to do, as his choices will heavily impact how the squad looks and functions, both during the remainder of this season and next year.

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Of course, the injuries themselves are concerning. Leno, Mari and Martinelli will miss the rest of the season, while the latter pair will have to continue their rehab next season. Cedric, Torreira and Sokratis should be available soon, but it might take several weeks to get match-fit. And getting match-fit is vital, both for these players and those that Arteta is already working with.

One of Arsenal’s problems since the Premier League restarted has been a lack of competitive spirit, energy, commitment, and work-rate. There is a mental aspect to this, of course, but the physical capabilities of the players must also be considered. How fit actually are they?

After a disastrous late defeat to Brighton, the Southampton match was extremely telling. It was not a pretty win. Arsenal did not dominate everything or control the game. But the players who played with intensity, fire, awareness, and did what was asked of them. Just ask Kieran Tierney, Rob Holding, and Eddie Nketiah.

But not every player was at peak fitness. Dani Ceballos, often touted as one of the future best midfielders in Spain, is a talented player. That’s why he was signed on loan from Real Madrid, a loan the club just extended. But he’s flighty and unpredictable, as seems to be the standard for every creative midfielder not named Kevin De Bruyne.

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Ceballos has turned in a series of not-quite-there performances of late, with fatigue hampering his ability to create for a full 90 minutes. Arteta will have to watch his use of his countryman, because a midfield without Ceballos is a midfield without creative impulse, especially now that Matteo Guendouzi’s hot head has him in hot water.

And the match against Southampton portrays another crucial element to Arsenal’s energy and fitness: youth is key. Both goals were scored by 20-year-olds and former academy graduates. The two men of the match — Holding and Tierney — are 24 and 23 respectively. These players provided umph and industry throughout the 90 minutes.

Next: Gabriel Martinelli injury disastrous for more than this season

It was clear: Arsenal competed harder, ran further, were fitter late in the game, and won as a result. The club, then, must deal with its most pressing need, the injury crisis and the overall fitness of the squad.

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