In our last match, against Manchester United, our team was at its devastating best. In spite of that display, doubts continue to linger in the minds of a section of our fans about our ability to consistently perform on that level. Those fans must be thinking, “We fans have seen it before, haven’t we? The perplexing, now-we-see-it, now-we-don’t-see-it phenomenon that has been the story of our team.” I hasten to add here, that this phenomenon is not peculiar to us alone but, for some reason, ours is always the most topical. Maybe it is the eleven seasons without any of the two biggest trophies (PL and CL) that brings our blips into the sharpest relief in comparison to our immediate competitors.
There are opinions galore regarding the reasons for our “inconsistency” and, as we would expect, the chorus is being led by numerous ‘respected’ pundits. Some call for formation changes. Some heap the blame on parsimony and the absence of “world class” additions this summer. Others won’t get it out of their head that it is a lack of leadership on the field preventing the team from getting anywhere near the consistency of The Invincibles. Gary Neville staked his reputation on front pages asserting that Arsene Wenger can win nothing with the spine of his team not manned by huge, muscle-bound specimens. (Let’s not go into what opinion Xavi, Iniesta, Messi and co. would have of him.) As for me, Neville still lives in the long, long gone era of ‘if you miss the ball, don’t miss the man.’
Is there really an issue? Can we hit, if not the heights we seem able to reach in certain matches, the consistency of The Invincibles? With the brilliance we seem capable of, can we, at the end of the season, be champions of the Premier League, or, at the worst, a point or two off the mark? Let us go into this very slowly.
(1) In most of our matches Arsenal dominate possession. We dominate games through patient horizontal build up filled with pretty little triangles. This system not only keeps the ball away from the opponent but also allows the team to keep its shape as it probes for gaps in our opponent’s defense. While attacking, the team is at one and the same time defending through possession. The philosophy here attempts to achieve positive balance through the fusion of offense and defense. (Refer: Johan Cruyff/Pep Guardiola). We seem so well at home playing this way.
(2) Watch our first half against Man U. It was a blitz. Quick vertical transition. This pattern is offensively weighted. It normally goes with more turnovers than the horizontal build up. Also, defensive shape is more liable to be compromised as the team stream forward in attack and the players here have to keep alternating mentality very quickly. Offensive mindset instantly switched to defense, back to offense, to defense, offense, defense… Counter pressing is an integral element of the quick transition play and it is designed to keep triggering the alternating offensive/defensive demands of the system. (Refer: Jurgen Klopp). In that first half versus Man U, Arsenal showed that they are well versed in this philosophy.
(3) Watch our second half against Man U. It was a defensive master class. We were very comfortable letting Man U have the ball, the antithesis of possession play. We sat deep, closing the passing lanes, but alert to the inevitable opportunity that does open up for counters. Such a tactical set-up normally has the fans of the defending team biting their nails nervously, while the players, drilled in the knowledge that the hunter is in fact a prey, are able to retain their calmness. (Refer: Catenaccio MK2). We have demonstrated many times that we have great aptitude for this strategy.
So, as a first summary, we know we are good (very good) at possession football, at quick transition play and very convincing sitting deep and countering. We seem to have it all. We can switch from one pattern to the other as situations demand. Yet, on the evidence of the lack of cup winning consistency, there must be something, somewhere, that we have not mastered. Is it something structural, having to do with the formations that we use or is it the technical qualities of the players, the fitness level of the team? Or maybe it is attitudinal, connected to confidence, to belief, to commitment or to focus?
Formation can be made not to vary from match to match. Santi Cazorla’s skills or energy level, for example, one would expect to oscillate only within a tiny range from match to match. On notes such as these, consistency in performances might be guaranteed. On the other hand the human mood can swing wildly. Still, it swings more in some, less in others. Inconsistency, which is a swing in performance, logically, must be an attitudinal issue. As an example, the handbrake-on-syndrome can only be an attitudinal issue.
Do we have players in our team, lacking attitudinal stability? Without hesitation, I give a clean bill to Sanchez. He gives his all, all the time. Monreal is the quintessential professional. Coquelin is a rock. Gabriel is almost overflowing with all that is needed from him, attitude wise. I like that young man Bellerin. He is growing up nicely… But wait a minute, am I beginning to get ahead of myself? First, let us find out what that right attitude is.
Right attitude? The most critical, the most fundamental demand on which every thing else hinges on, is that a player must be able to sacrifice his will for the will of the team. In other words, on the field of play, there is only one will–that of the team. It is most important that every player understands this emotionally. Every action of every player must be to benefit the team and never the self. The self disappears and beauty becomes only discernible in the group. When that point has been reached, attitudes become correctly aligned, feeding and giving to one another to create a formidable, consistent team spirit or mentality. No wonder Mikel Arteta is the captain of this talented team. Do you want to join me in celebrating him?
Attitudinal issues cannot be tackled detail by detail. They are too subtle, too elusive. They belong to the world of the intangibles. They can only be besieged with large diagrams and given time, metals will turn into gold. I have a feeling you have already guessed where I am heading to. The surest way to tackle the lack of confidence (or the over-confidence) of a player is to redirect that player’s mind to the work of serving the team, of giving his all to his comrades. Psychologically speaking, the player ceases to exist, only the team, of which he is but a part, exists. So too for issues of commitment, concentration, and all other attitudinal challenges. Working with the team and for the team on itself is an instrument for positive self change.
Right attitudes are also skills which require time to acquire or enhance. When we talk about the experience of the older players we are referring, more or less, to their greater attitudinal stability. Le Prof is a master of the intangibles. That is why he places so much value on the likes of Mertesaker, Arteta, Rosicky, Petr Cech. Alchemists all, he knows their value in the dressing room.
In the last 38 epl matches, Arsenal is tied in the first position with Manchester City on 80 points. We are leading the 2015 table with 58 points from 27 games. For this season we are currently second, 2 points behind the leaders Man City. We are the 2015 FA cup holders. WhoScored ratings put us currently at 3rd position in Europe’s top 5 leagues for 2015/16, behind Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. Amazingly, the roar, from some quarters, of Arsenal’s inconsistency continues unabated. Mass hysteria is a terrible affliction.
People say that Le Prof does not talk enough, that he does not provide enough information. To those who have ears, he speaks ever so eloquently. When he said to us over a season ago, “We are now in a position not to lose our players,” he was telling us that the wound to his heart and to our hearts by the departures suffered in seasons past have now begun to heal. When he said, “Cohesion”, he was saying, healed, completely healed. We are now on the home stretch, and he, Le Prof, is already banging on the door of The Invincibles.
We are the 12th man on the field. Our job is to lift the team, so that they in turn will lift us. Together, even when the gods insist we lose a match, we will troop home singing our song of victory.
Who next? — Watford. Here we come. — COYG!!!
by Pony Eye