Physical fitness has always been an issue at Arsenal, particularly over the last decade, but is mental fitness perhaps a larger stumbling block?
The term ‘mental strength’ has become something of an in-joke amongst Arsenal fans. First coined by Arsene Wenger (presumably), having the strength of character to be able to scrape dubious wins, fight back from losses and overcome disappointment is a key ingredient in Le Professeur’s philosophy.
Having mental strength is what we lacked in our season opener.
The term mental fitness, to me, means being ready to face the match. There’s one thing drilling your body into peak physical condition, but if your brain isn’t ready to deal with the intensity, are you really fully fit?
Last season, Wenger described Ozil as mentally exhausted from the World Cup, citing this as the main reason that he didn’t perform as others expected.
Could a lack of mental fitness be why we lost to West Ham and saw slight improvement against Crystal Palace?
What’s the difference between mental and physical fitness, and how can it be improved?
Physicality of the Premiership
Staying fit is paramount for Arsenal’s season if we want to be successful come next May.
Lack of fitness and subsequent injuries are, arguably, what has lost us the league multiple times and last season was no different. Serious, long term injuries to numerous first team players, including Mesut Ozil, Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud subtracted from our creativity, speed and power going forward, thus costing us points. Did it cost us enough points to lose the league? We’ll never truly know, but it’s undeniable that the 12 point gap would have been smaller.
At the beginning of the 2015/16 season, particularly in the opening game against West Ham, we seemed worryingly unfit despite enjoying a successful pre-season.
Alexis Sanchez, despite keeping up with his fitness regime while on his break, should not have been allowed on the pitch against the Hammers and in my opinion, he wasn’t ready to start against Palace either.
This is understandable as he played for Chile in the Copa America final and had a reduced recovery time. What isn’t understandable is why he was brought on but that’s a topic that’s already been talked about to death.
Per Mertesacker also seemed more than a little rusty. I’ve mentioned a couple of times since the match on Sunday that he appeared to be getting in the way and although the German isn’t the most elegant outfield player, his ability to intercept and break down the opposition’s attack is usually impressive.
Francis Coquelin also reverted to old ways, almost picking up a red card after receiving a yellow in the first half. Although he only committed four fouls before Wenger subbed him off and many believe the referee was right not to send him off, his frustration was showing.
If one player appears unfit, adjustments, whether in the form of substitutions of rotation can be made, but if several aren’t on their A-game, the whole team drops.
After the match Wenger spoke about the lack of fitness and highlighted that although we played some sublime passing football for spells, we have to work on being able to keep it up for the full 90 minutes.
However, how much of this unfitness is down to not being physically ready and how much of it can be attributed to not being mentally in the right head space?
Non-football fans love to harp on about the stupidity of footballers and underestimate the amount of brain power that goes into the game.
Of course, we already know the likes of Jose Mourinho and even Arsene Wenger love to play games in varying degrees. Jose enjoys a bit of sensationalism in the media to detract from what is often a lacklustre, uninspiring performance from the Blues. Whereas Wenger likes to be vague and keep people guessing. He talks a lot, using the same phrasing repeatedly, but not actually giving much away.
On the pitch, mind games are just as important. Knowing individual’s weaknesses, what sets them off, and how to get under their skin can make a split second difference.
Tricking someone into lunging the wrong way, inviting challenges, riling up defenders. All these things can work in your advantage and give you that time you need to dribble past, lay off a pass or find the space for a shot on goal.
Being able to prevent cheap tricks from getting in your head or affecting your game is crucial. Having a mental toughness is paramount.
The Premier League is one of the hardest in the world because of its unpredictability. Of course, you can have an idea of the outcome but it’s far from set-in-stone – as our 2-0 loss against West Ham showed.
Being ready to remain disciplined, focussed and steely against any opposition is key before setting foot on that football pitch for your opening match and I don’t think we were ready at all.
I think our heads were still in pre-season, basking in the glory of finally beating Chelsea, patting ourselves on the back for that 100% win rate, which essentially means nothing once the season starts.
We walked onto the pitch against West Ham unprepared mentally for what the next 90 minutes could bring. In our minds, we had already won and anything other than this wasn’t considered.
Against Crystal Palace we showed signs of getting there. We fought hard, got an early goal, grabbed a winner after they equalised and held on for our dear lives. It wasn’t perfect and it wasn’t pretty for the entire 90 minutes but we showed tenacity and approached the match in the way we should have approached the first.
The only way we can become mentally fit is the same way we become physically fit: keep competing. Don’t rest on our laurels and go into the next game ready for battle.