When you witness a performance like Tuesday night’s dreary display against Watford at the Emirates, it's hard not to wonder what the atmosphere is like in the Arsenal dressing room before a big game.
If Wimbledon’s Crazy Gang filled theirs with ghetto blasters and swinging genitalia, you can imagine the Gunners' is a scene of big headphones and selfies. According to various accounts from former players, Arsene Wenger likes it to be a place of calm serenity, where players sit in their various units and discuss the forthcoming game, devising a match-winning plan in perfect harmony.
You wouldn’t be surprised if Arsenal’s pre-match playlist was a mix of dolphin calls and gentle sea sounds. But when the rain's pouring ahead of a miserable midweek fixture against a pragmatic side determined to kick, nick and bite, you need to lose the slow jams and pump out something bigger.
Chaos over calm
Rather than scrolling through their social media feeds and planning the next post-win selfie, Arsenal need a leader who struts around the dressing room with his chest puffed out, rattling the cages of his pack before they go out to battle.
As Per Mertesacker has revealed, that’s not the Arsenal way. “Some guys are calm; some are lively; some need to push themselves,” he explained to FourFourTwoPerformance. “I don’t need to go around and gee up every player – everyone is professional and motivated for each game.
“You have to let each player go through their own routine. We keep it simple. The aim is to be focused.”
Well perhaps, Per, a little less calm and a bit more chaos might have helped Arsenal start the game on the front foot against Watford. The hosts slept through the first half and found themselves 2-0 down inside 13 minutes – a deficit from which they weren't able to recover. Although Alex Iwobi pulled one back late on, the north Londoners were beaten by Watford for the first time since 1988.
Arsenal have the talent to win the Premier League title, but they haven’t got the resolve. Football hipsters will turn their nose up at the idea of a bit of old-fashioned grit – it’s not cool, it's not football, it's not what Spain or Germany are doing. It is, though, what the Gunners are missing.
The Invicibles, led by Patrick Vieira, went unbeaten for so long for a reason – they fused artistry with a snarling, never-say-die attitude, irrespective of their nationalities.
Granted, that was also under Wenger, but as Ian Wright reveals in his autobiography, A Life in Football, the Frenchman’s preference for handing responsibility over to the players only works if the individuals in question can be trusted to take up the fight week in, week out.
This isn't a question of ability, or even of effort: it's one of psychology.
Desperate to win
Serial winners like Tony Adams, Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and Sol Campbell – the list goes on – hated losing, whether it was on a Saturday afternoon in the Premier League or during a 5-a-side at London Colney. Coming off second best wasn't an option. Wenger didn’t instill that, it was simply part of their DNA. But this crop of players are different, as fierce competitor Roy Keane once observed.
“There’s too many Arsenal players interested in selfies, I think, whatever they are,” the ex-Manchester United man snarled. “Instead of focusing on winning Premier League titles, it’s all about how their bodies look, how their hair is, more so than winning football matches. That's the way things are going.”
Why isn't Wenger banning this post-match prattery? You can’t imagine Sir Alex Ferguson standing for it.
“I was always fearful of one of his hairdryer tellings off. I didn’t want to let him down,” revealed Lee Sharpe, in FourFourTwo documentary, Fergie: The Untold Stories.
And yet the hairdryer was something of a myth – the Scot claims he only used it six times in 27 years. It was the fear of receiving a bollocking that motivated his players.
Gently does it
You don’t get the impression the Arsenal players are scared of letting Wenger down; they know he’s going to come into the dressing room after the game and keep the peace.
That’s lovely, but it isn't working. Arsenal haven’t won the Premier League since 2004 – the year of the Invicibles, a team of fiercely competitive, top-class players. Alexis Sanchez is the only member of the current crop that ticks both of those boxes.
Sometimes football isn’t about playing the beautiful game and enjoying the way you play, an ethos Arsenal have stuck to during the Wenger era.
In a recent interview, Frank Lampard and Jamie Carragher admitted they wanted to win so much they didn’t actually enjoy their football – that’s how much it meant to them.
It sounds selfish and irrational to wish that upon your own players, but maybe that’s the problem – maybe Arsenal are just too focused on making everyone happy. If winning is your target then sometimes you have to do the things you don’t enjoy.
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Change is good
Do the Arsenal players want it as much as the likes of Lampard and Carragher? There’s no doubt they hate losing. There’s no doubt they do everything they can to perform at their optimum level when they pull on the red and white. There’s no doubt they’re professional athletes who desperately want to win.
But do they have that obsessive, borderline psychotic desire to win? Sometimes their performances suggest otherwise. At the top level, you have to hate losing more than you enjoy winning.
This isn’t a fickle, knee-jerk reaction to one poor result. This happens to Arsenal time and again when it matters most.
How can Wenger change this? Throw some tea cups. Kick a boot at a player’s head. F and blind. And for goodness' sake, change the dressing room music.
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