Monday, 14 March 2016

On mental strength.

Perhaps the most frequently repeated criticism of Arsenal is that the team ‘lacks mental strength’ as a result of a lack of leaders. This piece from Michael Cox did a good job of debunking the idea of ‘weak leaders’, showing how even 80 years ago, the previous generation perceived their successors as too weak.

But nonetheless, the idea that Arsenal are mentally weak and were tougher with players like Patrick Vieira and Tony Adams in the side persists, even repeated by those who find the leadership thing nonsense.

I’m very much of the opinion that the mental strength thing is also nonsense, trotted out every time Arsenal lose a game but conveniently forgotten when the team is winning. It’s almost like its reverse-engineered bullshit entirely dependent on the result of the game in question.

Presumably, coming from behind to get a result with ten men playing away at your fiercest rivals epitomizes great mental strength. Call me skeptical then, but if those players are so mentally strong, you’d expect that mental strength not to have entirely dissipated within a week, when the players went 1-0 down to Watford.

An alternative, and in my opinion far better explanation is that good teams tend to win far more than average teams and a hell of a lot more than bad teams. The teams which are traditionally help up as being bastions of mental strength are sides like Man United in the 90s and perhaps Arsenal in the early Wenger era. There are perhaps two reasons these teams tended to display the ‘mental strength’ necessary to score a late winning goal or come back from going a goal down. One was that being far better teams than their opponents, they would be likely to create far more chances, and this was even more likely as the opposition tried to sit back and absorb pressure once going a goal up.

The second reason teams used to display more ‘mental strength’ – and I appreciate this observation needs a little more evidence – is that games were a lot more open, possession was turned over a lot more easily and there was generally a lack of tactical nous. It’s notable to me that while people point to Arsenal lacking ‘mental strength’, there doesn’t appear to be all that much of it on show throughout the Premier League.

As the tactical awareness of managers has grown, the goals per game rate in the Premier League has steadily declined to the point where with an average goal rate of well below three a game, if a team concedes the opening goal, it’s just considerably harder to come from behind and win, and there’s a lot more randomness to results. Arsenal 2011-12 won the most consecutive games after going behind in Premier League history. When I go back and look at those games, the victory at Anfield was incredibly lucky, backed by a brilliant goal by somebody who was then one of the best strikers in the world, and two more of those games saw at least somewhat fortuitous last minute goals. That’s why I think the idea of mental strength is based entirely on the result, rather than the performance in question.

This isn’t to say there aren’t things Arsenal couldn’t do better in terms of mentality. I think recent games against Barcelona and Spurs were apt examples of how surrounding the referee and putting pressure on them around big decisions can help swing a game in a particular side’s favour. In addition, I think the side’s love of putting the ball out of play every time an opposition player goes down has become something other sides enormously take advantage of.

But these are just specific examples of things the players could do better. Certainly, effective game management is important and there’s no doubt in my eyes that the current Arsenal side struggles to adapt to going to a goal behind. But I view the reasons behind that as being technical and about how the team is constructed, rather than mental.

It’s just highly implausible to me that this failure to recover results is down to mentality. Even to the extent it’s true that modern footballers are just motivated by money, they have large bonuses on offer for winning individual games, larger still for winning trophies, and eye-catching performances are likely to help secure them a larger contract, either at this club or somewhere else.

But more generally, footballers want to win. Those who reach the top of the game were often not the most talented, but simply the ones who applied themselves the most when they were young players, worked the hardest on their fitness, and listened best to coaches. Given that’s true, there’s no reason for me to believe that once they reach the cusp of winning major trophies like the Premier League, their will to win suddenly diminishes.

The most interesting aspect of what tends to be attributed to ‘mental strength’ is that to the extent Arsenal used to score a lot of late goals, it was down to the far superior stamina the team tended to have compared to opposition teams. If I were going to ask questions of where the current side is faltering (tactics and injuries aside), I’d ask why the team repeatedly looks knackered towards the end of games. It’s stamina, tactics and injuries which are costing Arsenal – not a lack of mental strength.

1 comment:

DeludedToonFan said...

Not sure about the term 'reverse-engineering'. I think you're describing observation bias, wherein fans only observe a phenomenon when they look for it (i.e. look for inherent weaknesses in the team only when the team lose, despite the weaknesses surely existing when the team wins too).