Injuries That Changed the Course of World Football This Season
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As the 2012-13 season enters its final week (for most of us), it is now the time to look back at what might have been.
This is a list of the four most high-profile injuries in world football, and why they had a large effect on their respective club’s campaigns.
Players are ranked in order of importance to their team and the effects of their absences.
All stats are courtesy of transfermarkt.co.uk, unless linked or stated otherwise.
Vincent Kompany: Manchester City
The absence of Kompany's authoritative play compromised City's title defence.
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Since arriving in Manchester from Hamburger SV for an undisclosed amount in 2008 (though BBC Match of the Day’s Alan Hansen has put that figure at £6 million), Kompany has established himself not only as one of the best centre-backs in the world, but also as City’s captain and talisman.
He was instrumental in their title-winning campaign of the 2011-12 season, marshalling the defence as they kept 17 clean sheets. He also showed up in attack when it mattered, scoring the only goal in a crucial game against Manchester United that ultimately won City the title.
He exudes authority and combined his size, brilliantly timed tackles, and good feet on the ball to lead City to a stellar results record, particularly at home. The Etihad was somewhat of a fortress between March 2011 and March 2012, with City recording 19 successive home wins.
This year has not been quite as ideal.
That City won the title on goal difference with 28 wins, five draws and five defeats last season—while this year coming in second by at least six points with 22 wins, nine draws and five defeats—shows just how much the comparative lack of defensive resolve has cost their challenge.
A recurring calf problem has blighted the Belgian international’s performances in 2012-13. Of the nine league games that he missed this season, City drew two and lost two, which, in points dropped, equals the minimum final deficiency there can be between themselves and United in the table. Last year he missed seven games, of which they lost one and won the rest.
Not only has Kompany not played as well this time around—he has been making uncharacteristic errors that would have been unthinkable last year—but also, City do not play as well without him as they did last year. In the weeks that Kompany was injured, from the end of January to mid-March, the gap between City and United grew from seven points to 15—not a statistic that will provide any comfort to defensive coach Angelo Gregucci.
The Solution—If City are to lose Joleon Lescott, as is widely believed, they will not only need a solid replacement for him, but also a decent cover for Kompany in case of another drop in form or injury. Matija Nastasic has played well and cemented his first-team place under Mancini. However, he is not yet the finished article, and will have to prove himself to new management. Expect there to be a summer shake-up.
Lionel Messi: Barcelona
Messi watches from a helpless position on the bench as his team are pulled apart by the steel of Bayern Munich.
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It’s impossible not to upset some of the purists with this statement, but its truth is unavoidable—Barcelona are just not the same without Lionel Messi.
The player affectionately referred to as the rightful successor to Maradona (a prestigious or dubious honour depending on your stance) in Argentina has been lighting up world and European football for the past seven years.
2012-13 has, by most accounts, been a good season for Barcelona. They wrestled back the La Liga title from fierce rivals Real Madrid—a feat made even more admirable when considering the points chasm that currently stands between them—and made it to their seventh straight Champions League semi-final, also an impressive achievement.
But that is where the fairy tale gets put on hold.
Barca were so spectacularly beaten by Bayern Munich, so pathetically thrashed into submission, that it caused some to claim that the gravy train is grinding to a halt. Of course, anyone with their head screwed on knows that two bad games do not kill off dynasties; Barca will remain at the top of Europe for years to come. But, perhaps for the first time, the over-reliance on Messi was fully exposed.
Having missed the three league games leading up to the clash with Bayern, it seems as though Messi may have been rushed back from a hamstring injury—that has since reoccurred—and wasn’t ready to play; let alone in a game of such magnitude. He was lost among his markers for most of the game, and the few times he did receive the ball, his sloppiness and tendency to gift it back to the opposition were not what we’ve come to expect from the three-time Ballon d'Or winner.
After losing the first leg 4-0 with Messi under-par, Barca made the strange decision to consign him to the bench for the second meeting. Without Messi, Barca were slaughtered 7-0 on aggregate.
Why did they put him on the bench when he was clearly not fit to play? Did they think that he might magically recover during the game? The Barca manager attempted to explain his decision after the game, but the reasons are not convincing.
The decision to include Messi on the bench points to an issue that has threatened to surface for several years. Pedro, Fabregas, Thiago and Villa are very good players, but without Messi to weave his magic, Barca looked decidedly average. Not average in world terms, but definitely when pitted against Europe’s elite. Tito Vilanova knew this and wouldn’t take the risk of leaving their star player out completely.
Messi is a player who rarely gets injured, which is the secret behind Barca’s recent unbridled success. The team is built around him, and even with the likes of Xavi and Iniesta on the team, when their focal point is missing, those joints become unstuck.
The Solution—It's difficult to suggest, but perhaps rejigging the tactics so they are not quite so reliant on Messi may provide some insurance for those rare occasions when he is out of sorts. After all, no one expected it would happen for the most important game of Barca’s season. They should learn from this as they move forward.
Jack Wilshere: Arsenal
Sadly, the early years of Wilshere's promising career have been frustated by multiple injuries.
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Jack Wilshere has equal chances of being one of the best English players in history or yet another unfulfilled promise, depending on how that ankle holds up.
Aged just 21, Wilshere has already been part of the Arsenal first-team for three seasons and has all the talent at his disposal to one day take his place among football's elite. However, his development has been blighted by injury to such an extreme that in the 2011-12 season, he did not make a single club appearance.
That Arsenal may miss out on a Champions League place can be largely attributed to the absence of a free-scoring Van Persie or a suitable replacement, but the fact that Wilshere has not really been able to work up his best form is also major factor.
Wilshere has an uncanny ability to dictate play in midfield, using his superior balance and intercepting ability to dispossess opponents, and then employing his seemingly 360-degree vision and pinpoint accuracy to turn the tables on them. Had he not missed the entire 2011-12 season plus 13 league games in 2012-13 and been able to get back to his prime, it is hard to argue that Arsenal would not be more assured of fourth place—he is that good.
It seems that Arsene Wenger is perhaps too eager to play Wilshere. Despite a massive improvement on last season, the midfielder's ankle is still playing up, with the Arsenal gaffer admitting in April that he rushed Wilshere back from injury too soon for their tie with Norwich. That gamble seems to have taken its toll, with Wilshere only playing 123 minutes of a possible 450 in the league games since, and he is now ruled out for the upcoming international friendlies in order to have surgery.
Should Arsenal not make fourth place, it will be the first time in Wenger’s tenure that the Gunners have failed to qualify for the Champions League, and the repercussions—considering the club’s self-sustaining financial model—could be more serious than expected. Last night's victory over Wigan put the race in their hands, but there is still a tough final game against Newcastle.
Wilshere has said that he will always be a Gooner, but that does not mean that if Arsenal fail to deliver on the European front his head will not be turned. Keeping Wilshere is imperative to the team moving forward, and bringing in a few quality players will give things a boost. However, they could find it hard to attract the best talent if they fall short of the Top Four. Wenger said this week that Arsenal should be challenging for the title— he will have to show that he means it come the summer.
The Solution—A lack of authority in midfield is an issue that needs addressing. While Mikel Arteta has enjoyed a solid season, he is not a natural holding midfielder and does not have the presence that Vieira or even Alex Song had. It would a good move to at least buy cover for Wilshere, considering both his and Diaby’s susceptibility to injury, if not a top-class like-for-like player in case of another lengthy spell on the operating table.
Holger Badstuber: Bayern Munich
Badstuber's season was cut short by a serious knee injury, which allowed Jerome Boateng to usurp him in Bayern's defence.
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Having impressed since the remarkable 2009-10 campaign (other than an erratic 2010-11 season)—which made his name and saw Bayern Munich clinch the Bundesliga and DFB Pokal double—Badstuber made a good start to this season, including netting his eighth Bayern goal, and looked set to carry on the form he had built up since the disappointing lull.
However, his advancement was cut short in December during a match against Borussia Dortmund, when he suffered a ruptured cruciate ligament that unfortunately ended his season.
Clearly his absence did not affect Bayern too badly, as they have since won back the Bundesliga title from Borussia Dortmund by a difference of at least nine points, and booked their place against the same team in this year’s Champions League final at Wembley.
The reason he is on this list is somewhat unflattering—it’s purely because of the excellent job Jerome Boateng has done in his absence.
There is a cruelty in the fact that Badstuber was developing a solid partnership with Boateng on the left side of defence before he was laid out, and as a result may struggle to regain his starting centre-back role upon his return.
Since then, Boateng has gelled well with Dante to form an imposing partnership that has played a huge part in Bayern’s season. Their durability is evidenced by a staggering goal difference of 79 in the Bundesliga with only 15 conceded, while their Champions League goal difference is 19. It is hard to imagine another pairing who could hold two clean sheets against Barcelona.
In a way—and he will definitely not appreciate this—Badstuber’s absence has been a blessing for Bayern Munich, in that it allowed such a fantastic run for Boateng that has helped carry his team through.
The Solution—With the brilliant covering job that Boateng has done, there doesn’t appear to be a need for one.