This team is not right in the head

Here we are then, Monday morning, cold light of day and all that. You might say there’s no time to look back, with a Champions League game against Braga tomorrow night we’ve got to put Saturday behind us and move on, but I think, unfortunately, it bears a bit more discussion.

I spoke yesterday of a mental weakness in this side. I’m quite sure that in terms of preparation we were as up for this game as any away game this season but we lack something, a ruthlessness, an ability to kill teams off when they’re there to be killed. And let’s face it, at 2-0 up Sp*rs were there for the taking. The third goal would have been the knock-out blow. Instead we crumpled and let them back into it.

You can talk about lack of leadership or direction on the pitch but I think it goes much deeper than that. We had the leadership and spirit to beat Everton away, to scrap out a win at Wolves, to go to Blackburn and take three points, there’s no reason why it should have been different on Saturday. Perhaps heads went down a bit but remember we had one disallowed and Koscielny should have won it for us. Nevertheless, we folded at the end and let them win it.

For me there’s a malaise in this Arsenal team. I know some people suggested I was a bit harsh on Arsene Wenger but at the end of the day the team is built in the image of the manager, they have the character he instills in them. And although I know he’s hugely motivated and wants to win badly, there’s something missing. Here’s what he said after Saturday’s game:

We lost our focus. At 2-0 up, it looked too easy and we eased a bit off.

Eased off? In a North London derby? How can this happen? Yet just a couple of weeks ago he spoke about the Shaktar defeat:

We had a good start but after that we became too easy.

It all sounds a bit familiar, doesn’t it? Wigan away last season:

I believe that we were not focussed …at top-level competition you have to be focussed for 90 minutes or you can lose games

The defeat at home to Hull a couple of seasons ago:

I am not sure we can focus all the time in every single game, especially when we think the game will be easy.

It’s a fairly consistent theme. Lack of focus, thinking games will be easy. And when that collective brain-melt hits us we generally end up getting punished. I know we’re not the only team who blows winning positions but we hear constantly about how we have to learn from what’s happened. We don’t seem to be doing a lot of learning. We’re sitting down the back of the classroom, chewing gum, going ‘yeah yeah, all right’ when the teacher is trying to impart knowledge.

Is it down the manager not being forceful enough? Is it down to the players simply not listening? Are they afraid of him enough? Respect is one thing but there’s got to be an element of fear too. See, I don’t even think its conscious. I don’t believe there was no desire to beat Sp*rs, I don’t believe there was any lack of knowledge about the importance of the game – both from a derby point of view or the league position side of things – so it just points to this malaise I was talking about.

Martin Keown:

This Arsenal team can go close to winning the league but it seems the group suffers from complacency — it is like a disease. They get to a certain level, everyone says nice things and then they let it slip. But I think they will bounce back.

I expect them to bounce back too. It would not surprise me one bit if Braga took a pasting tomorrow night but the point is how long can the team go without suffering another off-day, another day when the heads aren’t right and we lose more points in the league? At the moment it’s very difficult to have any confidence that this team can produce what we know they’re capable of on a consistent basis.

We’ve been very lucky that our failures this season have not been exacerbated by those around us. Chelsea are going through their worst period in seasons, United are drawing a lot of games, and even as Sky ask if the balance of power has shifted in North London, the cock gobblers are still four points behind us in the league. Even three draws at home in the league games we lost would see us top of the pile this morning. It’s like we’re being given a second chance, and then another second chance, and another one, and handing them back. At some point we’ve got to fucking take it.

The team must learn that 90 minutes of focus and concentration is required. We saw it at Wolves, for example, when Fabianski’s performance kept us in it. At 1-0 I think you’re generally more focussed and more aware how damaging one goal is. Yet there’s no reason why you shouldn’t do exactly the same at 2-0, or 3-0 or 4-0. Develop that ruthlessness, create a culture where conceding is anathema to the players regardless of how far in front we might be.

It’s just impossible to escape the conclusion that after an impressive 45 minutes on Saturday some of them thought the game was won. And we got punished for it. I don’t know how many times we need to say they have to learn the lessons. Perhaps there’s a case for adding a sports psychologist to the backroom staff if there isn’t one already. Was it Schteve McClaren who had a psychologist as his assistant manager at Boro? He was probably scoffed at a bit there but if it’s not something we’re doing at Arsenal maybe we should. And if it is something that’s part of the set-up then perhaps we need a new one.

Here’s Cesc talking about the Shaktar game from a couple of weeks ago:

The manager said the same after the game – once we were ahead, we took the game too easily. But in football, you can never be complacent, you can never switch off, otherwise you will pay for it, whoever you play against.

We all have our opinions on players and their various qualities but for the most part this Arsenal side is good enough, technically. The first half on Saturday showed what concentration, commitment and ability can do. Yet until we sort out this nasty habit of taking our foot off the accelerator we’re going to see repeats of the second half and we’re going to make our attempts to win trophies all the more difficult.

I’m ignoring stories this morning about how a win against Braga would ease the pain of the Sp*rs game. It wouldn’t. It would be a very small step towards that but nothing more. Winning against Sp*rs at WHL later in the season would help ease the pain. Going on long unbeaten run in the league would ease the pain. Yes, we’ve got to focus on the next game but our problems are not just short-term.

A solution has to be found for our mental fragility, if not we’re going to flatter to deceive for some time to come, and go through this all again.

If we can’t learn our lessons, perhaps we need some new teachers?


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