Mikel Arteta says he wants his players fully focused on Arsenal for the next two weeks even though a number of his squad are just weeks away from playing in the World Cup.
The Gunners have four matches to play across three tournaments in the next couple of weeks before those who are selected by their country jet off for Qatar.
Given the tight turnaround, players are well aware that an injury at this point could be fatal to their chances of participation. All the same, the boss is determined that minds don’t wander.
“No. And I don’t want to notice any of that,” was Arteta’s firm response when asked if any players had started turning their attention to upcoming international responsibilities.
He also made clear that while he feels no responsibility towards the national teams, he always feels protective of his players.
“Every day I feel a responsibility, to protect them, to guide them, to get the best out of them. But we are playing for Arsenal at the moment and that’s what they have to focus on.
“When they are playing for England or their national team, they have to focus on the national team. This is what we have to do.”
The line of questioning was, in part, linked to the knock sustained by Bukayo Saka in Sunday’s win over Nottingham Forest. The winger took a couple of hefty kicks to the ankle leading some to question whether he’d be fit to make Gareth Southgate’s squad. Thankfully for Arsenal’s and England’s sake, the 21-year-old has recovered in double quick time and is available for Thursday’s Europa League clash with FC Zurich.
At the weekend, Arteta was seen deep in conversation with club doctor Gary O’Driscoll while Saka spent an age trying to figure out if he was able to continue or not. The manager grew increasingly agitated until he called on Saka to sit down so a substitution could be made.
Asked what was going on, Arteta said: “The conversation was, is he in or is he out? In between, we cannot have a player five, six, seven minutes [deciding if he’s injured]. You’re on the pitch or outside the pitch, if you need to be outside the pitch, sit on the floor and we’ll get you off.
“For sure [he wanted to play], but we had to make a decision and that’s it. We cannot delay a situation like that because every minute a player is not 100 per cent able to play it’s costing the team. We need to make those decisions quick.
“We’re using obviously our brains and our common sense but he had a kick, he wasn’t comfortable and we made the decision to get him off. Now he’s feeling fine and we’ll assess each individual as he comes.”
Saka’s legs aren’t the only ones that Arteta has been trying to protect. With the schedule chucking nine games at his players in October, he’s been doing his best to rotate without wanting to completely overhaul his starting XI each time. It sounds like he’ll continue doing the same until domestic football pauses in mid-November.
“It is a challenge. We’ve been trying to load the players pretty equally in the last five or six weeks because we have been playing every three days,” said Arteta.
“We have managed to do that and you have seen that we haven’t repeated too many blocks of four games of certain individuals and we’ll try to continue to do that to keep everybody as fresh as possible with enough rhythm between games.”
Looking further ahead, Arteta confirmed that Arsenal will play a series of friendly matches during the World Cup hiatus and that the six-week break will effectively be “another pre-season.” He also acknowledged that the management of said period could be vital to his team’s ambitions in the second half of the season.
“Yeah, it can do obviously. There is an element that we’re not going to control during that World Cup with your own players but certainly, with the players that we have here and what we do, it’ll be like a pre-season, another pre-season that is going to lead to a new season.
“We will have some friendly matches for sure. We are arranging them. We need to as we’ll have 10, 11, 12 players here and they need to have that competition.”
He added: We’ll be together, we’ll be having another pre-season and for a long period we’re going to be away from London so we’ll be together, so we’ll be supporting our players [at the World Cup].”