I find myself very conflicted today. On the one hand I know that we didn’t see the energy levels from the team that we were expecting last night, but on the other hand I can see that they were very nervous and scared more about conceding than scoring.
The way Arsenal play, patient, patient, patient, makes it very hard to ‘surge’ in the way you see many teams who are losing in the last ten minutes. We were also very wary of conceding on the break which limited the amount of pressing to score which we were willing to do.
Since the game v West Ham, when we luckily scraped a win, I have highlighted that the main problem of this team as being mental rather than technical. Sure Andrei’s laziness doesn’t help, nor do Song’s new instructions which have him pushed more forward and looking like a man who isn’t sure if he should be attacking or defending an in the end does neither very well (please don’t come at me with his assists/goals and not being directly responsible for any goals we have conceded, if he was playing where he was last year he would be plugging a massive hole and the ball would not be getting to our defenders for them to do something stupid with it).
We have a very big mental problem in this team. Like rabbits in the headlights we freeze when the pressure is amped up and this is very concerning for a team hoping to aim for the title, but it is not insurmountable. I would more worried if they didn’t have the technical ability.
So, the ‘mental’ issue. Basically, we just can’t cope with pressure, and I’m not talking about the physical kind from being under bombardment from another teams attack. I mean the mental pressure of the expectations weighing down on them.
The technical definition of pressure is when the challenge that you are facing outweighs what you perceive your ability is. In other words, when you believe that the opposition is superior to you. When a player feels under pressure he is likely to feel more tension throughout his body,
Mentally he will demonstrate confusion, an inability to make the right decision, all wrapped in a lovely blanket of doubt and fear.
This then leads the players to tighten up, get tentative, and make mistakes which then reinforces the belief that he might not be good enough, that you can’t make the right decision, that someone else would be better dealing with this.
There was a reason the ball seemed like a hot potato last night – everyone was afraid of being the one who made the mistake that cost us the game, and as such, sought to rid themselves of the ball as soon as possible.
Confidence is the ‘cure-all’ and that is the main problem this team has – they have no confidence. For all Wenger’s overflowing belief in this team, it could actually be having a negative effect on the team. Like a parent who has very high expectations of a child, the feeling that you have to be perfect, like you have to be the best at absolutely everything, that you have to be perfect, is enough to make you afraid of doing anything for fear of making a mistake and upsetting them.
Our players see pressure as coming from outside sources – from the fans, from the media, from the opposition, but it doesn’t, it comes from within. Is that from inside the training camp? Or inside their heads? I don’t know, I don’t have that sort of access.
They need to look more at the process of what they are doing – worry more about what you need to do on a minute-by-minute basis rather than the overall result of the match. Deal with each minute in a match, not the whole 90 as a whole.
How does a team come to have a collective confidence issue? Well it’s easy to say ignore what others say about you, just believe in yourself, but we all know in reality it’s just not that easy. Many would like to believe that media and fan pressure has no bearing on how the team perform, but that’s simply not the case. How would you feel if everywhere you looked someone was saying you were a terrible example of a human being? How would you feel if someone kept repeating, over and over and over that everything you do is wrong? Would it matter if they were actually wrong, or would some of that make its way in to your own psyche?
Then you have the doubts, which are reinforced by bad results, results which might have come about because of bad luck, or injuries, or any other set of circumstances outside your control. Maybe you just had one bad day as can happen. This feeds on any doubt inside a players mind and heaps more ‘pressure’ on them to perform in the next match.
Man United set out to do a job last night – they set up to defend for all they were worth and hit us on the break. Why not, it’s what has worked for them before. Having experienced defeats like this so many times, the Arsenal team arrived on the pitch looking to be more tactically robust, and as a result we lost a lot of our ability to move the ball quickly to players as the players themselves weren’t moving. Afraid of being caught out of position, they didn’t move to make space. We know this team are not as solid as we would like defensively, but what we’ve always had is quick movement up front and a fast interchange of players. Take that from the game, throw in the ‘confidence’ issues and you get what looks like players not trying, not caring, not ‘giving it their all.’
You may laugh at what I’m about to say next, but I actually think it’s true – we were far better defensively yesterday. Far better than we had been on most of the other occasions we played them. They scored from a fluky header (well taken) which, nine times out of ten loops harmlessly in to the arms of the keeper or over the bar. You will point to Clichy making mistakes, but I will point on the number of times he actually robbed Nani of the ball but had no support to help him pick up the loose ball. Nani was usually closer to the ball Clichy had nicked away from him, so of course he was going to collect it first more often than not. What if Arshavin had been closer? Would he not have got that lose bal first, Clichy would have looked great for stopping one of Man United’s main threats, and we would have the ball able to spring an attack?
Instead, what you had was a left-back trying to do it all on his own.
Apart from Arshavin, I’d say that everyone tried to play a tighter, more tactical game. Knowing that most of Man United’s goals this season had come from the right we should have taken steps to address that. Leaving Clichy out there alone to handle the pressure of Nani was irresponsible. If Arshavin isn’t willing to put in the work to help defend, then he shouldn’t be on the pitch.
But even the tiny, lazy Russian managed more tackles than our defensive midfielder Song. His directive to get forward more often finds him in positions where one sublime through ball would have us in on goal. More often than not he is unable to find that pass. Why? Because it’s not in his locker to the extent that it is in Jack’s Nasri’s Rosicky’s, Van Persie’s, Arshavin’s or Cesc’s. His strengths are in breaking up play and then giving the ball to someone who can use it.
With time, Song might go on to show that he can find that pass, that Wenger was right to push him forward, after all, who am I to argue with the man who stood by Song for so long when we all wrote him off, but in the meantime, what we have is one of our most combative players putting in the fewest tackles because he is caught between attacking and defending and in the end doing neither effectively.
There was very little between these two sides yesterday apart from the post match reaction, Man United seemed to think they had played brilliantly, whereas we were castigating our team for another match in which we failed to show up. Take out Park’s goal and what do you have? We know we can get better, do better, be better.
We went for defensive solidity yesterday ahead of our natural, flowing football. We got caught out by a fluke goal and our own lack of belief.
Sometimes that’s all it is. Sometimes it is more than that.
What we need to do is realise which one it is.
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