Graeme Souness’ spectacular rant on the mentality of the Arsenal players has gone around the internet and been applauded, but nobody is daring to wonder if he was wide of the mark.
Now don’t get me wrong, confidence definitely exists and it definitely affects the way teams or players play. The same can be said of pressure. However, the enormous amount that pundits and fans alike seem to decide results and seasons depend on these unquantifiable platitudes is frankly absurd.
Arsenal’s issues these seasons are not that they are physically or mentally ‘weak’, that they consistently ‘bottle’ big moments or opportunities, or that they don’t have the right ‘mentality’. My patience for these soundbites has waned completely over the last few years, but now I find myself more baffled and, to be completely honest, annoyed by them than ever.
You can probably tell.
Up at Old Trafford on Sunday, Arsenal played without a good structure on the ball. The midfield was vacant, the fullbacks and wide players often stood on top of each other and offered no layered effect to move the ball within. Playing in defence, Gabriel and Laurent Koscielny couldn’t make a cutting pass so the ball rarely progressed upfield: the former struggled technically, the latter had little time on the ball and nobody to pass to.
Manchester United didn’t want it more, they wanted it smarter. They forced the ball to Gabriel and Francis Coquelin, knowing that was the best way to stifle Arsenal or force a turnover.
In the Gunners’ last Premier League game, the side came from behind to beat table topping Leicester City in the final minute of added time. Were we mentally strong then? Earlier in the campaign we beat Bayern Munich at home when absolutely had to in order to stay in the Champions League and possibly Europe. Did we lack character then?
Theo Walcott, the player who could probably most fairly be questioned for his ‘mental strength’ on Sunday, scored the equaliser in that win against Leicester City, the opener in last season’s FA Cup final, as well as the first goal in December’s defeat of Manchester City. He, like so many others at the club, has delivered in huge stadiums and in high pressure games.
This side has won two FA Cups with Arsenal along with much more playing for their respective countries or former clubs. That doesn’t happen when mentality is the problem.
No, character, mentality and strength are merely unquantifiable things people appear to leap on when they can’t actually explain what the issue is.
Tactical deficiencies, such as Arsenal being terrible in possession (which I wrote about here), and a lack of compactness off the ball and pressure on the opposition players in possession are the real issues. Perhaps I should spend some time analysing our problems in those phases of play in the next few weeks.
This season, the two teams with the best structure, the best organisation, the best tactics, in the Premier League are Leicester City and Tottenham Hotspur. They play in a way that suits their players and is difficult to play against. They are not top of the league by coincidence.
This is no fairytale.
Both sides are compact without the ball, with Spurs applying heavy pressure and covering dangerous parts of the pitch excellently. Leicester put far less pressure on the ball but position themselves intelligently, shifting as a unit and giving up very little space. On the attack, the Foxes look to launch counters at breakneck speed. They are, for all intents and purposes, like a faster, budget version of Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid. If you want a comparison for Spurs and their intelligent positional play or pressing style, they are somewhat similar to Jürgen Klopp’s double-winning Borussia Dortmund side.
English football, and its audience, rarely recognises those qualities. Compactness doesn’t exist in the Premier League, nor does organised pressing. No, in England we think so much is down to grit and character and how strong you are on a very personal level.
Real Madrid don’t win as much as they should because they appoint poor tacticians. The same squad that didn’t win the Champions League for a long time won it under Carlo Ancelotti in 2014, only to sell key piece of the side Angel Di Maria and lose to the tactically superior Juventus in last season’s semi-final. Last season also saw Borussia Dortmund falter, almost finding themselves in a relegation battle. The form dipped so low that legendary coach Klopp decided to step aside. When results were poor he asked for more desire, more fight, more belief and passion.
This season, Thomas Tuchel has adopted a more nuanced approach at Westfalenstadion and the very same players have soared.
Anyone can win with the right talent and intelligence but, like we humans do in so many ways, the ‘mental’ aspect is marginalised with little evidence. Confident people can come across in so many ways, as can determined people. Mesut Özil doesn’t lack those things, he just has funny body language.
Just as you can’t diagnose a mental illness by looking at someone, you can’t judge the mentality of a footballer by looking at the way he carries the ball or goes into a 50/50 challenge. I would very much appreciate it if ‘old-school’ ‘hardman’ like Souness or Carragher or Neville actually looked at the broader picture and stopped spouting things about the subconscious they simply aren’t qualified to judge.
Success is not about your character, though it may well play a part. But winning is also, to a large degree, down to talent. More than anything else, tactics, structure, and intelligence win you football matches and that is where Arsenal are lacking.