It was less than a fortnight ago that Mikel Arteta was reflecting with no little concern on an Arsenal squad that had become "really light in the defensive line" after Jurrien Timber's injury at the start of the season. Now it is all the lighter with Takehiro Tomiyasu facing a spell on the sidelines that could be up to six weeks, according to CBS Sports sources, following the calf strain he suffered in Saturday's 2-1 win over Wolverhampton Wanderers. At the most intense stage of the season so far, the Gunners look a few bodies light across their defensive line.
Assessments over recent days place Tomiyasu's potential return to fitness between four and six weeks, placing his involvement in the entire festive fixture list in doubt. The Asia Cup also looms on the horizon, a competition that runs from January 12 to February 10. It remains to be seen what role the 25 year old would have at that competition.
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For Arsenal, however, they face the distinct probability of being down to just six senior defenders for the remainder of the year. One of them, it should be noted, is Cedric Soares, who has three minutes of senior football to his name this season. That number could well increase given the hectic fixture list on the horizon.
Over the next month Arsenal play seven games, including two meetings with Liverpool and Saturday's visit to Aston Villa. Those are exactly the sort of games where Arteta tends to gravitate towards Tomiyasu, as effective a pure defender as there is in the squad. It takes a lot to even slow Mohamed Salah, let alone stop him, but in Arsenal's 3-2 win over the Reds at Anfield last season, the two-footed Japan international excelled at stopping his opponent cutting into the most dangerous spots on the pitch.
Tomiyasu's value goes beyond the specifics of one game, however. Indeed, in his third season at the club he has grown in importance to Arteta, such that he is expected to receive a new contract in the coming weeks. He is solidity personified, averaging more interceptions per 90 than any Arsenal defender over the last three seasons. Tomiyasu ranks in the Gunners top five for aerial duels, tackles won and clearances, but he is more than just a stopper; at his best he whips in dangerous crosses from the right half space. This season has also seen him develop as an inverted left back, such that he is now a net positive for Arsenal across the pitch, as adept clearing from his own danger area as he is getting his side into the other.
It is no wonder then that he is rivalling Ben White and Oleksandr Zinchenko for starting spots in Arsenal's strongest XI. There are few players in the Premier League who can cover at center back, left back and right back. Tomiyasu is one of an even smaller group who might be able to excel in any of those spots.
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Arsenal believed they had found another in the summer, but Timber suffered a major injury to his anterior cruciate ligament on the opening weekend of the season. Though he hopes to return to the pitch before the end of the season, it will be a race for him to play a major role in any title challenge. White, something of an iron man for the Gunners last term, is just returning from a knee issue that proved more troublesome than initially expected. Arteta, meanwhile, could only offer his hope last week that Thomas Partey, an option as an inverted right back, would be fit before Arsenal's two weeks break post FA Cup third round. With Fabio Vieira and Emile Smith Rowe out until the new year, it is not as easy in practice as it might seem to simply drop a Declan Rice back from midfield either.
That break adds complications to the calculus around defensive injuries. Arsenal need greater numbers to aid their cause in December, but they have only three matches to negotiate in January, four if they knock Liverpool out of the FA Cup. By the time they can add to their squad, they might find they have got through the worst of the injury crisis.
In the meantime, Arsenal will have to cope with what they've got, perhaps blooding the likes of Reuell Walters and Lino Sousa for the dead rubber that is their final Champions League tie against PSV Eindhoven on Tuesday. One thing is for certain, they can ill afford any further injuries at the back.