The press took Jose Mourinho’s threat to play with a weakened side on Sunday seriously, raising the prospect at Arsène’s press conference yesterday. The prospect is linked to United’s Europa League progress although it strikes me that the Moaning One, having witnessed the performance at the Swamp, is trying to make the match a sporting contest. For a bit anyway. It’s a bit like the yob on the beach who jokes about kicking sand in your face, only to let you start getting up before actually doing so.
Mind you, when I first heard Mourinho’s comments, I thought he said he would play with a weak side, to which my reply was that it won’t be as weak as the one Arsenal have fielded in every game this year.
The conversation spread far and wide during Wenger’s press conference, as it always seems to. Granit Xhaka looks like missing out but Shkodran Mustafi is set to return. David Ospina is ready to take his place on the bench again but not much will change. It all went wrong with the back-to-back defeats at Everton and Manchester City, according to the manager. Confidence was destroyed by losing games we took the lead in. If he knows that now, he knew it then and the failure to restore belief in the players raises a massive question mark over Wenger’s suitability as Arsenal manager. It more than hints at a squad which doesn’t believe in the manager but is loyal to him, for the most part.
At some point, “Arsène is innocent” will appear on motorway bridges. Negative supporters and potshots at players perceived as disloyal; anything but considering a manager whose powers follow the path of the waning moon. Pitifully, we’re unlikely to see a waxing of his career.
Pointless To Be High
The subject of footballer’s mental health in light of Aaron Lennon’s problems arose. The PFA commented earlier this week that a total 160 past and present players sought help with their mental health. Those numbers should only come as a surprise that they are not higher. Lennon’s case is high profile, as were those of Clark Carlisle and Robert Enke but that is the tip of the iceberg. Wenger highlighted the environment in which footballers struggle in silence,
“We help on the mental front the players that want help. It is difficult for the players when they do not meet their needs, and like all of us, they are frustrated and suffer with self-esteem [issues] in some situations. The expectation levels around them are very high; their families, agents, the pressure on them is very big and it is not easy to deal with that at a young age so, when needed, we help them.”
There is a secondary issue. While educating players is top of the list in every case – racism, sexism, homophobia – is enough done to raise awareness of the signs that a player is struggling, among coaches and managers? The Frenchman highlighted that issues remain,
“Not all of the players that feel the need for help want to be helped by the club. Sometimes you don’t know what to show and what could be interpreted as a weakness inside the club and so [they] believe that you understand that most players if they are in a situation where they need help will do it outside of the club.”
When It’s A Long Way Down
As a society, attitudes need to change. Self-help groups, frequented readily by women, are more often than not ignored by men. Barriers hastily erected, slowly come down. Asking a footballer to volunteer that he needs help is looking at the problem the wrong way. Managers and senior figures in clubs need to be pro-active in this field, even if it is for selfish reasons. A contented player performs better; one struggling with mental health issues is going to see form and confidence suffer. That’s the wrong way of looking at it but football is a notoriously insular business, rampant with egos; if that’s what it takes to kickstart a sea-change in attitudes, then so be it. It’s not right but it’s about finding an effective way to help those for whom the stigma of mental illness casts a heavy shadow over their lives.
Football is slow to react to issues; the game must become more enlightened. Work for all outside organisations is hard and progress slow. When it gets its’ act together, football can achieve much but getting it to do so is as much a battle as changing attitudes and taking action.