Time after time Arsenal have crumbled under pressure and, as a fan, it makes me wonder how we overcome this.
Recently, the boss, players, everyone, has spoken about having to perform under pressure. Pressure follows our club around like a bad smell. It digs its claws into our player’s backs, weighing them down, whispering in their ear as they walk out onto the pitch.
During pre-season and the run-up to our first Premier League match against West Ham, Wenger was keen to tell us how much he relished the pressure. It’s something we’re always under. When we weren’t winning trophies – pressure. When we were losing our best players – pressure. Now we have a decent squad but we still have to perform – more pressure.
This would all be completely understandable, except, we don’t tend to fare well under pressure. We’re a nervous wreck. We’re jittery, stupid, clumsy and frustrating, and there’s nothing we as fans can actually do other than continue to support them while chewing our fingernails to bloody stumps.
Let’s take a joyous look through recent history. All the way back to the 2011 Carling Cup final against Birmingham City. We were six years without a trophy at this stage, and at that point in time, this was our best chance at silverware. Everyone thought we would win – we had to. After all, this was only Birmingham.
Within minutes, a young Wojciech Szczesny came rushing out of goal, almost giving the Blues a penalty if the offside flag hadn’t, wrongly, been up. The shaky mistake was all too familiar for Arsenal fans who were instantly reminded just what we were capable of. We were capable of messing this up.
Just to punctuate this point, Birmingham then scored via a set piece. A header onto Nikola Zigic landed in our net. Woj could have done better but it was all a bit of a mess, as is the norm when Arsenal used to (and I say ‘used to’ lightly) defend set-pieces.
Of course we went on to equalise through Robin van Persie, while Keith Fahey hit the woodwork for the Blues.
The deciding moment of the game, the moment that will forever be etched into our minds for all eternity no matter how many trophies we win, came in the dying minutes when a mix-up between Laurent Koscielny and Woj meant the ball landed right at Obafemi Martin’s feet. He had no choice but to score, he was right there and as he did so, the blue side of Wembley erupted and my heart broke.
Watching back the match, we looked nervous. Our body language was completely different to how we play now. The slump of our shoulders tells a story and back in 2011, with a leaky defence and inexperienced goalkeeper, we looked terrified and heart-breakingly young.
Recent history repeating itself
Fast-forward to 2014 and we’re playing Hull City in the FA Cup final. It’s now been nine years without a trophy and the pressure has mounted even more. On top of the usual pressure, we have the replays of that mix-up between Kos and Woj repeatedly playing on the inside of our eyelids.
I feel sick.
What happened within the first 10 minutes was quintessential Arsenal in the worst way.
Hull get the first corner of the game in the third minute. Stephen Quinn delivers it out to Tom Huddlestone who shoots. It deflects off James Chester into the bottom left corner of the goal and Hull are 1-0 up.
In the minutes following their goal, we completely forgot who we were or what we were doing. David Meyler was allowed a free header in the area from a Huddlestone free-kick but luckily for us he missed; our players were in complete no-man’s land and allowing the Tigers all the space they needed.
They could have set up a full picnic area in our box and we would have allowed them. In fact, we probably would have helped lay out the blanket.
When the second goal came, it was almost a relief because you’d known it was coming. You’d felt it in your bones and the pit of your stomach and you knew, you just knew we’d messed this up good and proper.
Quinn dribbles around Rambo as if he isn’t there and puts a decent enough ball in. It rebounds off the post and ends up getting slotted home by Curtis Davis. By this stage, words weren’t coming out of my mouth any more – not even expletives.
In the 13th minute, Gibbo has to header another free header off the line and I was almost done.
We came back to win, obviously. However, only after Hull’s legs had started to go. Even then, in the final couple of minutes of extra time, Hull caught us on the break, Fabianski came charging out and we narrowly missed them equalising without any time for another comeback.
Same old… but a different day
The fact is, although we came through in the end, we just don’t perform well under pressure. We forget our positioning and start throwing all our players at the ball. We all look as if we want to save the team. In fact, Matthew put it well in his column this week:
“Coquelin, struggling without Cazorla next to him against a disciplined opposition, decided to try to play like Pirlo. Ozil seemed to be attempting Maradona moments too often, Ramsey often seemed like he was trying to get onto the end of his own passes, and Cazorla appeared to want to play every midfield position at once.”
Each player didn’t necessarily want their own moment of glory but they were trying to do too much when the best course of action would be to stick to what they know. What we know is good enough. Just play your football and the rest will come. However, no, pressure makes us act rashly and force the issue.
Against West Ham, the frustration was palpable from both the fans and the players. Nothing was going right and the more we tried to force it, the further away from scoring we seemed. Nacho was the personification of this as he kicked out at opposition players, conceding free-kicks.
From top to bottom
The pressure doesn’t just affect the players. It’s also effects the boss. Throwing Alexis Sanchez on when he’s barely fit enough to walk down the tunnel is not how you win games and it came across as incredibly desperate. When Wenger takes actions like this, is filters down to the players and they feel it tenfold.
An exception to the rule
A couple of examples of games where we should have felt pressure but maybe didn’t and therefore performed well are Man United in the FA Cup last season away and the 2015 FA Cup final. You can probably lump beating Chelsea in the Community Shield into this as well.
Manchester United at Old Trafford. Although many predicted us to just edge it, there was no shame in losing. Everyone knows our record at their ground is abysmal and, although we wanted the FA Cup, we’d won it the year before so a bit of the pressure was taken off. As it was, we went on to win and play pretty well.
The FA Cup final against Aston Villa. Of course, it did help that Villa decided to set up in potentially the worst way possible, but other than that, as I said before, we’d won the FA Cup the previous season. There was a bit of pressure but not nearly the same amount as the year before. 4-0 to the Arsenal.
Chelsea in the Community Shield. It was just a friendly. No matter how many people talked it up, we could always fall back on that and promise to learn from our mistakes. Everyone loves a bit of personal growth talk. We took our chance, defended well and came away with the trophy.
So what’s the answer? A little pressure is good but lots of pressure turns us into bumbling idiots. At a club that seems to always be under the spotlight, it’s unavoidable. Therefore, learning how to deal with it or, even better, harness it is paramount. Otherwise, we’re going to see lots of repeats of the West Ham match and I worry if that’s the case.