Arsenal still have an unused weapon to unleash in the title race

Mikel Arteta - Arsenal still have an unused weapon to unleash in the title race

Westlake Village, in the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains, is a glorious location in which to plan for the season ahead. Beautiful landscapes, a gentle breeze and perfect Californian sunshine. Malibu Beach is only round the corner, and Los Angeles is just a little further down the coast.

It was here, in a spotless hotel under faultless blue skies, that Arsenal’s preparations for this campaign really gathered pace. Stationed in California for the second part of their pre-season tour, Arsenal made the most of the luxurious venue. Families of the players and coaches were invited, and the club put on enormous barbecues at which all staff could mix.

The Kroenke owners, Stan and his son Josh, were there too, along with Arsenal’s executives. It was a time to strengthen relationships, build fitness and, in the case of Mikel Arteta and his coaching staff, prepare the squad for the considerable challenge that lay ahead: competing for both the Premier League and Champions League.

Declan Rice (left to right), Jurrien Timber and Josh Kroenke

More than eight months later, Arsenal are where they hoped they would be. Top of the league going into this weekend, and in the quarter-finals of the Champions League. As they basked in those picturesque sunsets last summer, this is what they would have envisaged.

Except, in many ways, the campaign has not unfolded as Arsenal had planned. Not on the pitch, anyway. Arteta and Edu, the sporting director, had a different vision of how the team would look this season, and that vision has simply not been realised.

The reason? A serious injury to Jurrien Timber, just 50 minutes into their opening Premier League game. Arsenal had committed around £39 million to the signing of the Dutch defender but he has been available for only the tiniest fraction of their season. Without him, Arteta has been forced to rethink the masterplan that he had drawn up before the start of this campaign.

‘We recruited Timber with clear intentions’

At which point, some readers might snigger. Can Timber really have been that important? Was his arrival from Ajax really going to be so transformative for this Arsenal team? According to Arteta, at least, the answer is an emphatic yes.

“We recruited him with clear intentions,” said Arteta in August, shortly after Timber’s anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury. “[Now] we have to adapt.” In January, he expanded a little by saying that Timber was signed because he had “an ability that we did not have”.

And earlier this month, the Arsenal manager added: “Jurrien has a quality that nobody else has in the back line to actually effect, especially in the attacking phases, things that we do, in two or three positions.”

Why does this matter now? Because Timber is almost back. The 22-year-old has been in full training for a few weeks and is edging closer to a first-team return. At a time of the season when there are few surprises for opposing teams, Arsenal might soon be able to unleash him as their hidden weapon.

There must, of course, be caution. ACL injuries are complicated and Timber will still need some time to build himself up. Arsenal’s team is settled and the matches are all enormously important at this stage of the campaign. Arteta cannot simply throw Timber back into the starting line-up.

But the excitement within the fanbase is certainly understandable, and there is an expectation that Timber’s return could prove to be a significant boost in these decisive weeks of the campaign.

Timber sustained his anterior cruciate ligament injury during his side's Premier League match with Nottingham Forest in August

It has helped Timber’s recovery that his ACL injury was an unusual one, as he did not suffer major damage to other parts of his knee. And, in a strange way, he has said his long-term absence has helped him to settle in London quicker than he otherwise would.

Arsenal have kept Timber close to the team throughout his rehabilitation. He has been at the Emirates Stadium for the majority of home matches, standing with the players in the tunnel and in the dressing room. He has also been included in team meetings before and after matches, which has given him a chance to study the tactical plan and learn from Arteta.

In February, Timber said he feels “at home” in London. He has had chances to expand his sporting horizons, too, and recently went to see a Saracens rugby game.

In an Arsenal shirt, Timber demonstrated in the Community Shield that he is aggressive, powerful and versatile. He excelled in that match on the left of Arsenal’s defence, despite spending almost all of his Ajax senior career as either a centre-back or right-back.

Timber may be a defender but it is his ability with the ball that makes him such an interesting signing for Arsenal. In the Dutch Eredivisie last season, he made more progressive carries and forward passes than any other defender. He also had the best passing accuracy of any defender, and the most successful passes in the opposition half.

In other words, Timber is as much of a technician with the ball as he is a formidable defender without it. Arsenal hoped to use this technical ability to change the shape and feel of the team, but have had to shelve those plans for almost an entire campaign. Now, with the season at its crucial moment, this could be the perfect time to dust them off.