Sometimes it’s all in the margins.
The difference between confidence and arrogance can be the key to a successful season or otherwise. When we’re confident, we are more patient, more relaxed. Things come that much easier. When we’re arrogant, we are too patient, bordering on lazy. We wait for things to come to us.
But if confidence is the perfect equilibrium on the seesaw of success, and arrogance is the very end of one arm, Arsenal have spent far too much time this season on the other side of the fulcrum.
That’s why the win against Lincoln City was important
I know, a victory over a non-league side, even one tearing up the Conference, shouldn’t be much of a talking point for a club of Arsenal’s pedigree. But we’re so low on confidence that scoring five goals past any team might be the catalyst we need. The previous rounds of the cup suggest the manager might agree.
Going into the 4th round fixture against Southampton, we had won five of six fixtures over the busy festive period. Arsene made a host of changes. Shkodran Mustafi was the only player to keep his place from the preceding league game against Burnley. The first team were playing OK, and getting them proper rest was the order of the day. We scored five in a strong performance. The benefit to the first team was limited, but we didn‘t need the confidence.
Against Sutton United: it was also a much changed team, as we came into the game off the back of the Bayern humiliation, but we played more first XI players versus a non-league side than we had against Premier League opposition a round earlier. The performance was stilted as confidence wasn’t just low, but pretty much absent after the midweek embarrassment.
Yet in both matches, Alexis came on as a substitute. At face value it seemed a strange decision, but a quick glance at the Chilean’s form explains Arsene’s thinking: a chance to play him against weaker opponents, a chance to get him a goal or two, a chance to get him back playing at something approaching his level. A chance to give him some confidence.
Against Lincoln, it wasn’t just Alexis who needed a lift – the whole squad needed a pick-me-up.
And so we fielded a strong line up, and delivered just the kind of result the doctor ordered.
We’re walking a perilous path
The trouble with no-win games against ‘lesser’ opposition is that while they can deliver a boost, the players themselves also know they should be winning those games comfortably. Indeed, you could argue that the low scoreline against Sutton in the previous round was almost demoralising because it was seen as underperformance.
The Lincoln result gives us a small boost, but we’ve now got a short window to capitalise on it. The game against West Brom could make or break our season.
If we can take the feel good feeling from last weekend, and turn it into a great first half against the Baggies, that confidence could come flowing back. Top level sport is at least part psychological. There’s a reason the word ‘momentum’ gets thrown around so often after all.
However, if we find ourselves struggling against resilient defence, or even a goal down at half time, it could very quickly render the performance and result from the Lincoln game a distant memory.
What price an early goal?
The last time West Brom kept a clean sheet was back at the start of February against Stoke. It was a game where they had just 38% of possession despite being the home side. As such, it’s quite clear what we should expect from Tony Pulis’ men: a negative, defensive performance designed to stifle any new confidence we might have.
I was unfortunate enough to watch West Brom wilt and fold against Spurs earlier this year. There’s no doubt if we can get ahead early, it could make our lunchtime kick-off distinctly more enjoyable. It will also help to ensure our hope is not short-lived.
With City, and potentially one of Spurs and Chelsea to come in the cup, as well as a battle for the Champions League places, on our hands, now is the time to leave nothing on the table.
If we can come away with another positive result, it would be much-needed progress, baby steps. It could trigger an end of season run which would make our season somewhat palatable after all. The alternative is unthinkable.
So thanks, Lincoln, for the little bit of confidence we’ve managed to grasp in the last week. Now we need to capitalise.