Chamakh now holds the key
With the news that Robin van Persie will be out of action for three weeks, focus turns to the other strikers in Arsenal's line-up as they face the most crucial period of their season. The spotlight will fall on Marouane Chamakh more than the rest.
The Moroccan striker was heralded as exactly the kind of player Arsene Wenger needed when he joined on a free transfer from Bordeaux in the summer. Strong, powerful, athletic and with aerial ability he could provide the Gunners with a different dimension; Chamakh's movement and link-up play impressed at the start of the season, with Van Persie and Nicklas Bendtner forced onto the sidelines through injury.
However, as the season wore on and Van Persie returned to full fitness to lead the line again, Chamakh's impact waned, largely because of his inability to cope with the physical demands of the Premier League.
"Marouane has given a lot. He has played a lot on his own up front. He is a bit tired at the moment," Arsene Wenger explained in December. "He's used to having a winter break in France at this stage of the season. He has played nearly every game since the start of the season. He feels he had a little dip physically but he's working very hard in training to come back."
A haul of 11 goals before the turn of the year made the Moroccan a firm favourite with the Gunners' fans, and it has been his humility that has made him most popular. With the likes of Emmanuel Adebayor and Nicklas Bendtner to follow in the striking ego-stakes at the Emirates, Chamakh has shown an altogether different side to his character.
"By the start of January I felt I had completely lost my edge," was his honest appraisal two weeks ago. "I am fully aware of my new role as substitute. I hope to play again but it could be in March rather than February.''
Having paid tribute to first XI rival Van Persie in the same interview, Chamakh's focus on team over individual is exactly what Arsenal need and, although his clairvoyancy extended to predicting when he would be involved again, he would be the first to admit how important his Dutch team-mate is to the club.
The stats suggest that while Van Persie has missed 42.75% of their Premier League games (109/255) since he moved to North London, their win ratio when he starts (78%) is significantly higher than when he doesn't (56%). Now, the pressure is on for Chamakh to fill the void at a time when Arsenal play three games in seven days across three different competitions [Leyton Orient, Fa Cup; Sunderland, Premier League; Barcelona, Champions League].
Without a goal since netting against Aston Villa on November 27, Chamakh must now rediscover his scoring touch to keep Arsenal firing on three fronts.
Of all the players in English football, Chamakh's movement makes him most similar to Van Persie. Unlike Bendtner, he drops deep to pick up the ball and distribute to his team-mates, often making a pass before surging forward to put pressure on the opposition's defence. It is a style most suited to Arsenal, as his hold-up play allows the club's supporting midfielders to push up and he can attack the space between the centre-back and full-back thanks to the width generated by Wenger's 4-2-3-1 formation.
Like Van Persie, Chamakh often does not run at defenders and has no particular pace to speak of, but falls behind his team-mate in the 'X factor' stakes. The Dutchman's goal against Barcelona was emblematic of his ability to conjure something out of nothing, while his hooked shot in the defeat to Birmingham showed his agility, if also highlighting his tendency to succumb to injury.
With those fitness worries now causing Arsenal a real headache, Chamakh's toughness - mentally as well as physically - will come under the microscope over the next few weeks. His ability to hit the ground running and provide an able replacement for Van Persie could be the key to Arsenal's hopes of ending their six-year spell without a trophy.