Having spoken of personnel with Zara (www.twitter.com/goonerathena) a few days ago in part 1 and tactics with Steve (www.twitter.com/newfiegooner) yesterday in part 2, the final instalment of this three-part series focuses on mental strength. Sameer (www.twitter.com/thesquidboylike) gives his opinion on why this aspect is our main downfall…
Ah yes. Mental strength. Arsene and Arsenal’s fabled “mental strength”. How sad it is that one of our supposed qualities touted most by the manager has completely evaporated since that fateful February day at Wembley. The problem with mental strength is that it is intangible and cannot be quantified. However, we can use some stats to illustrate where it is clearly missing – since we last won a trophy, we’ve lost 40 leads that we’ve held in matches. For me, this depicts a lack of mental strength. While I don’t have the comparative figures for Man Utd and Chelsea at hand, I can bet my bottom dollar that it is nowhere near that number. This season alone we’ve suffered the horror of losing two separate two-goal leads against our deadliest rivals, the notoriety of being the first Premier League side in history to let slip a four-goal lead, and being the only team in living memory to score a 97th minute “winner” yet somehow contrive to not win the game .
But mental strength isn’t just that which occurs in matches. It is something that needs to manifest from game to game, something we need to summon to come back from adversity. Here’s another damning stat for you – we’ve only won three games out of 14 since the Carling Cup final. A run which has seen us exit the FA Cup at the hands of Man Utd, the Champions League at the hands of Barcelona (and bent refereeing), and fall away in the title race.
Yet not only have we dropped out of the title race, but we’ve also managed to sink to fourth place. And unless things go our way this weekend, we will be faced with ignominy of a mighty difficult Champions League qualifier in August. What’s that old joke? “Arsenal are the only team that can finish fourth in a two-horse race.” Sad but ultimately true.
In my eyes – and I guess many share this viewpoint, including the players – our season hinged on the Carling Cup final. After so many barbs over the years regarding our lack of silverware (if you Google the word “trophyless”, the first few search results relate to Arsenal), beating Birmingham was meant to open the floodgates and push us on to greater things. And with all due respect to Birmingham, we have never had a better opportunity to get the monkey off our backs. Having come up short so often, winning that day was to instil belief in the players and fans that, together, we could go on to achieve greatness this season. And you know what? I believe it would have. We may have still got knocked out of the other two cup competitions, but I reckon the players would have used the foundation of a Carling Cup win – of knowing they were winners – to drive them on in the title race.
However, the opposite transpired. We managed to lose the final in almost comical fashion, and the belief visibly drained out of the players as they lay sprawled across the Wembley turf. And this is where our so-called “mental strength” needed to come to the fore. We needed to exhibit bouncebackability, to learn from our mistakes, to dust ourselves off and maintain the verve that we had shown in the December and January and February. The same verve which had seen us banish of Chelsea and Barcelona.
But it didn’t happen. Gone was the vibrancy of the enigma that is Theo van Nasregas (admittedly, we suffered from injuries to two of the four components). Gone was the high pressing game that typified the middle third of the season. Gone was the hunger and belief required to be champions. Instead we ploughed along, starting games in lackadaisical fashion, failing to put our opponents to the sword and too often conceding first (largely from set-pieces, as Steve alluded to yesterday). This meant we were often playing catch-up and busting our arses to the last minute in search of an unlikely equaliser or winner, which is hugely taxing both physically and emotionally.
So we ended up fading from the title race, and a huge sense of déjà vu struck. The exact same thing happened last season, where we looked strong for two-thirds of the campaign but when the going got tough, we didn’t. I think one of the starkest aspects of this year is that we can no longer blame injuries. Last year, we could at least hang on to the fact that our fall from grace coincided with a horribly mounting injury list. Not so this time, which hit home to many – including myself – that maybe, just maybe, our first eleven simply wasn’t as good as we all believed and our backup was even worse.
As Zara said a few days ago, it does seem that we need new additions. Experienced and specialist backup for Alex Song is a must when you look at our record without him. And as Steve said, we do need to mix up our tactics, especially at home against the bus-parkers.
Thus whilst I unequivocally agree with both their suggestions of fresh faces and variety in our attacking game plus tightening up at the back, I can’t help but feel it won’t be enough. Whoever is part of our squad next season, they need to collectively overcome something greater than poor communication at corners or ineffective sideways passing and crosses to nobody in particular. They need to somehow believe again.
Money can buy us new players, hard work on the training pitch can help our tactics, but how do we find the mental strength required to take us to a higher level? As I said right at the start, it is an intangible that we cannot quantify or measure, it is simply has to come from within the side. There is no right answer or guaranteed cure, of course. So all I can do is look to the past. In 2001 we finished 10pts behind Man Utd and suffered late heartbreak in a domestic cup final. That summer there was significant movement in terms of transfers – most notably bringing in Sol Campbell. A similar marquee signing may do wonders against this summer. But the following season there was something else. The team broke free of the shackles of failure and came together in perfect harmony to win the Double. The players had spent a few seasons together getting used to each other and seemingly looked at each other and said: “Enough. No more second-place, no more glorious or tragic failure. We have to work harder, run faster and be stronger in both body and mind. We just have to win.”
And so they did. In swashbuckling style. If Arsene can hark back to what happened then and try to replicate it over the coming months, everything may be rosy again in the garden of red’n’white.