On November 7, 2009, Arsenal beat Wolves 4-1 to go to 9-1-2 in the Premier League. Here is the lineup Arsene Wenger fielded that day at the Molineux: Almunia, Sagna, Gallas, Vermaelen, Gibbs, Diaby, Fabregas (c), Ramsey, Arshavin, Van Persie, and Eduardo.
Why is a November game against a bottom-of-the-table side from 2009 worth mentioning? Because that was the last time that Arsene Wenger had his entire first-choice eleven to select from. That's correct. It has been more than three full years since Arsenal put its best team at any given moment on the pitch.
The injuries have affected the squad at virtually every position, but the most telling effect has been on the team's core players. Arsenal's last three captains have been Cesc Fabregas, Robin Van Persie, and Thomas Vermaelen. Those three have not only been the team's leaders, they have also been its best players in each of the three zones. They should have formed the spine of the team for the last three years. If Arsenal were to win anything over that time, it would have been because those three--with Jack Wilshere substituted for Fabregas after Fabregas's departure--led the club to victory.
The trio of Fabregas/Wilshere, Van Persie, and Vermaelen never took the pitch together again after that Wolves victory in November 2009.
To understand the impact of that streak, consider Chelsea. Chelsea won either the Premier League or the FA Cup in '05, '06, '07, '09, and '10. Imagine if, during that period, the Blues had endured a three-year stretch in which they never once fielded the full trio of John Terry, Frank Lampard, and Didier Drogba. Would the club have had anything close to the success they had? Chelsea won big game after big game, and those three players were at the heart of those victories. Arsenal have played in at least a dozen big games over the past three years, including critical late-season league games, massive Champions League matchups with Barcelona and other footballing powers, and a League Cup final. Not once did all of their best players play. Not once.
The easy story line that Arsene Wenger's post-stadium project of developing young talent into champions "failed" is inaccurate and unfair. We never got to see whether that team could win trophies because the team never played together. The project was derailed by an incredible (and unprecedented?) run of bad injury luck. And we haven't even considered the horrific, career-altering individual injuries suffered by Eduardo, Abou Diaby, and Aaron Ramsey. To paraphrase Ray Charles, if Arsene Wenger didn't have bad luck, he wouldn't have no luck at all.
Pundits often say that all clubs have injuries, so injuries are not an excuse. Granted. But no club in recent history has had the sustained record of injuries to key players that Arsenal has had. An excuse? Perhaps not. An explanation? Yes, and one that has received far too little acknowledgement.