We talk a lot about mentality as a key component of great sides.
The Invincibles were a fantastic group of footballers, as I was reminded yesterday morning when Robert Pires cropped up in Sky Sports’ Premier League Legends slot. However, for all their wonderful football, their success was born as often out of their attitude as their ability.
In the intervening years, we’ve had some great players, and some great teams even. We’ve come close to winning some of the biggest prizes even when we’ve been operating on a shoestring budget. Some of those players to grace the turf since the Emirates move could have easily slotted into the Invincibles team.
But despite the undeniable talent, we haven’t seen a squad with quite the same fortitude when it comes to the mind.
As with a number of recent seasons, our improvement in 2016-17 has been marked. A few targeted additions, paired with a noticeably increased workrate across the team, sees us contending with the big clubs. Clubs which at the start of the season we were told would be streets ahead of us.
Funnily enough, we are a place lower than we were at the equivalent part of last season. We were just two points behind leaders Leicester after 16 games of 2015, compared to the current six-point gap to Chelsea, but we’re a point better off this year.
The trouble is, it should be four.
Conservation the name of the game
Jose Mourinho developed something of a penchant for a 2-0 victory in his first spell at Chelsea. His game plan was to blitz the opposition for the first half, sometimes even less, until he had established a two goal advantage. Then, his Blues side would simply shut up shop for the rest of the game, treating it akin to a training match.
In the 2005-06 season, they won 10 games 2-0. That’s double digits of proving yourselves better than the opposition, and then doing a professional job without overextending yourselves. Funnily enough, 2-0 was the scoreline by which they beat us at Highbury that year, on the 18th December.
But why do I bring up Chelsea, and especially the Unwanted One, in my Arsenal column? Well it’s because this is what we’ve been doing at times this year.
We’ve tried to start games with a fast tempo, often scoring early, and then we’ve weathered storms of various strengths to ensure that we take home the three points without expending too much energy. It’s a smart strategy.
The Premier League season is long, and without a winter break it’s not unusual to see some burnout by spring. Every drop of energy we can save by winning games early and then playing out professionally could make a difference come May.
It’s not unusual for us to get another goal on the break either; we have scored three or more goals more times than any other side in the Premier League this year. That’s despite not really destroying any of our domestic opponents, up until West Ham’s spectacular capitulation a fortnight ago.
No, the “go like the clappers” start, followed by fairly clinical defending has seen us look like genuine contenders.
However, we stuffed that up big time this week.
We got the early goal – so far so good – but that’s where the good news finished. As soon as the goal went in, it was like we flicked a switch and suddenly went into training mode.
Meanwhile, I’m screaming at the telly: “You’re supposed to get a two goal cushion first, you idiots!”
To be fair, the warning signs have been there. Late goals against West Ham (and a dire showing from the east Londoners) somewhat papered over the cracks. After Alexis giftwrapped our opener for his “contract rebel” buddy, Ozil, our team appeared to decide a nap was the order of the day.
Stoke was a bit different, as for once we didn’t take the lead. However, we were back to our best against the Toffees, with the reaction to Alexis’ opener an instantaneous downshift of gears. And we paid the price. It was apparent as soon as Everton got the goal which turned out to be the winner, when we lifted the tempo instantaneously. We had it in us, but we were sleepwalking through minutes 20-86.
Finding the balance
There’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance. Confidence that another goal will come and that we can keep it tight defensively. Or arrogance that we are better than the opposition.
If arrogance is to blame for our switch-flicking, then you would hope that won’t afflict us at the weekend. However, longer term that kind of mentality could seriously damage our best chance yet of ending our league title drought.
I’m all for taking it a bit easier when the game is won. (Note I said ‘easier’ rather than ‘easy’.) But that’s not when you’re a solitary goal to the good. That’s when mentality comes in, making the right decisions in the right moments, and keeping the tempo at the right level.
Yes, it’s winter. You’re tired, it’s cold and it’s wet. But think about those days at the end of May where it’ll be sunny and warm, and you’ll become immortal. That bit of extra focus now could make all the difference when it’s trophy time.