During his 22-year stint as Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger had an oft-repeated and widely mocked aphorism to describe a player who was returning from injury. “It is” he’d say with a wry, knowing smile spread across his face, “like a new signing”.
Like a new signing. Or L.A.N.S., as Arsenal fans pejoratively acronym’d it.
Seen as an excuse for not making any actual signings, the phrase became a stick with which to beat him during his later years at the club; a sarcastic companion piece to the more prosaic demand that he ‘spend some fucking money’.
But lost in the vitriol was an underlying truth: because sometimes, getting a player back from injury really is like making a new signing.
Just ask Stephen Hart.
Back in April, if you’d have challenged any HFX Wanderers fan to name the three most important players in the squad, a large portion would’ve plumped for Luis Alberto Perea, Juan Diego Gutierrez, and Chakib Hocine.
Perea and Gutierrez in particular were seen by fans as exotically sourced game-changers, poached from the most renowned talent region in the world: here we were, us Wanderers fans, seated at the finest steakhouses in Medellin and Lima while the rest of the league dined out on Timbits and Poutine.
Unfortunately, it hasn’t quite worked out that way.
After missing Week 1 of Canadian Premier League action, Luis Perea was deemed fit enough to make his debut versus Forge in Week 2. A head-turning performance, capped off with the winning goal, seemed to confirm that he was every bit as good as we’d hoped he’d be.
But then… he disappeared, and it was 25 days until we saw him again when he returned for consecutive matches versus York 9 and Pacific FC, producing an assist and a goal in the process.
Worryingly though, another spell on the sidelines was soon to follow for him after breaking some bones in his left hand. There was a silver lining here though because the resultant surgery produced the funniest moment of Wanderers-related social media content this season as Perea, sprawled out on a stretcher with his arm raised and sweet ‘aw shucks, look what I did’ smile on his face, documented his journey to the operating theater in an endearingly candid Instagram story. All while draped in an off-white hospital gown, no less.
And so it was that after finally returning to the starting lineup, the 32-year-old was again injured, and in his place Tomasz Skublak (pictured) and Akeem Garcia were tasked with leading the line. Both did so admirably, but there’s no denying the impact the Colombian has on this Wanderers team.
Against Ottawa Fury, in the latest of his comebacks, he was absolutely superb. I’d talked myself out of placing too much value in him, perhaps as a form of damage limitation in case his injury woes stretched into the autumn, but seeing him up close once again hammered home just how good he is.
It’s his strength on the ball and his composure in the final third. It’s his quick little give-and-go’s with teammates. It’s everything he does, really. When he’s on the pitch the identity of this Wanderers team starts to crystalize. Suddenly, everyone is a bit more connected.
Even so, Luis Albeto Perea currently stands at the crossroads of his Wanderers career with two very different paths ahead of him: spend more time on the sidelines injured or establish himself as the best striker in the Canadian Premier League.
6,500 HFX Wanderers fans will be hoping for the latter, but as time and age catch up with the body, neither they nor Perea have complete control over what happens next.
Announced alongside Perea in February was Juan Diego Gutierrez. It was his arrival that spiked the interest of those of us who grew up on the Brazilian and Argentinean teams of the mid-90s to early-00s: to us, sub-6ft creative attackers from South America were and always will be footballing nirvana.
Much like Perea though, injuries have hampered Guti’s emergence as a key piece of the Wanderers jigsaw.
And it’s a shame, really, because from the clips available of him the Peruvian looks to be an absurdly gifted player; a carousel of tricks and flicks, a tremendous presser out of possession, and a man who seems to regard the ball with an affection usually reserved for beloved family pets.
One person to benefit from his absence is Kodai Iida. The Japanese youngster has grabbed the opportunity with both hands and become a firm fan favourite in the process. Despite his development though, there have been times when Wanderers really could have done with Guti as an option from the bench, or even as a starter to freshen things up.
With Stephen Hart using a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 hybrid for much of the season, I’m sure he would’ve liked to have started with Gutierrez and Perea as his front pairing at some point. Unfortunately for him, the two have only been on the pitch together for 15 minutes in total, so it’s an experiment that’s barely moved beyond its hypothesis.
Other pairings have come in and worked well together, but you suspect that the height of Wanderers’ ceiling will largely be decided by two questions: (1) can the South Americans click when they do finally start a game together? and (2) can they remain fit enough to turn out together consistently until October?
The answer to the first question is: yes, probably, especially if their time together at Universidad San Martin is anything to go by. Question two, though, is a little harder to answer and one that will likely cause Stephen Hart a few sleepless nights.
The last of the HFX Wanderers powerhouses to miss a significant period of action is Chakib Hocine. The 27-year-old was picked by many to be the Wanderers captain this year, but an unknown ailment has reduced him to only two appearances, both coming against Vaughan Azzurri in the Canadian Championship.
Much like Skublak and Iida benefiting from the injuries to Perea and Gutierrez, Peter Schaale, Matthew Arnone and, to an extent, Chrisnovic N’sa have been the beneficiaries of Hocine’s absence.
Central defence, perhaps more than any other position on the pitch, relies on familiarity and continuity to prosper. Much of the heavy lifting a centre-back does is off the ball as they strive to maintain their shape, and it’s for this reason that Hart has stuck with a largely unchanged unit over the past couple of months.
Despite the relative success of Wanderers’ back-line, adding Hocine into it may well bring an interesting new dimension.
The Schaale/Arnone pairing is slightly confusing because they work very, very well together despite being stylistically rather similar. Usually, this isn’t the case.
Most often, centre-back pairings feature players with opposite skill sets: for example, a combative ball winner who attacks play alongside a more composed player who screens loose balls and tracks runners. Wanderers currently have a pair of players whose skills lay very much in the first of those categories.
Hocine is a different animal all together, but the question mark that hovers over his return to action is this: will he be adding something or taking something away?
As it happens, with August rapidly approaching and Peter Schaale still scheduled to depart for Cape Breton, we’re going to find out the answer very soon.
It’s a credit to Stephen Hart and his coaching staff that despite the absence of arguably the club’s three most important players, they’ve never looked out of their depth in this league.
Should all three stay healthy and hit the heights expected of them during pre-season, HFX Wanderers may well become an increasingly vocal voice in the Fall championship conversation.
If this was to happen, try to spare a thought for Arsene Wenger as he sips wine on the balcony of a nondescript Parisian chalet, One Soccer on his TV, and a wry, knowing smile spread across his face.