There was never going to be an admission of why they do not do so but Theo Walcott offered a telling insight into the collective at Arsenal. Normally the players are cautious with their words in public – and to some extent the striker was – but the admission that collectively, they do not believe in themselves offers support to the belief aired by former captains recently, that there are just not enough leaders in the squad.
If begs the question as to why this has happened. In the professional sport, mental attitude is amplified as a core attribute in the group for success to be achieved. The inference from Walcott is that the strongest characters do not have confidence in their teammates and are as such, unable to lift the malaise which permeates. According to this morning’s Daily Star, the manager called the players together yesterday for a team meeting. In the past, such gatherings have been beneficial although the received wisdom is that the ones organised away from the club by the players, bring the most benefit; honesty prevails with a frank exchange of views. We shall see if this event has the same results.
Arsène reportedly held Jack Wilshere as an example of the commitment which is needed to improve the performances and results. The mental attitude is a key driver in the changing the season around. Even with new players, there will be no improvement unless the desire to change is there, the desire to succeed. The players know this and whilst Robin van Persie was so far wrong about the talent in the Manchester United squad, raising the comparison to Bergkamp and Henry in terms of mental attitude would not have been. On a player for player basis, technically Arsenal are not so far adrift of the leaders. In terms of belief, they are not in the same solar system.
The question is how do they change it? There is no easy answer but it has to be an internal solution; internal to the players and to the club. More to the point, the players have to want to change it. At this point the manager will find out more about the character of this group than if they were on a twenty match unbeaten run. Do they have the will, the resolve and desire to want to improve? The answer ought to be affirmative otherwise they have no place at the club. The manager will be questioning himself also; Wenger has a reputation of being his harshest critic but finding the answers is not simple, especially if the wrong questions are being asked. His tried and tested methods are under scrutiny with accusations that he has not adapted to the new world order. Or as George Graham observed, what isn’t he doing now that he previously did?
Part of his problem is the imbalance in finances, how he cannot compete for the best players in the transfer market but the truth is, Wenger never did. How many world-class players did he buy or how many did he make? The answer to the former is small in contrast to the latter. His problem is that the talent pool is smaller whilst scouting networks have improved to the extent that Arsenal no longer steal the march on others.
A change in the balance of the squad in terms of experience is welcomed but amongst other things to be addressed is whether the formation and tactics work. This season’s Arsenal are not like previous vintages, something is missing. The transition often talked about is not the group of players but how they play; the passing and movement is not as flowing as an element of directness is influencing the play. Yet Arsenal do not seem to know which style suits them best – should they pass, pass and pass some more or take a more forceful approach. Play breaks down more frequently because of the indecision, a state of mind which induces personal errors.
The situation is by no means as dire as initial reactions following the Chelsea game brought on. The top four seems further away because of a poor first half performance which repeats previous failings. Consecutive defeats against teams occupying those berths is never good but were they teams Arsenal were aiming at? Not right now, Tottenham are the ones to chase. We rely – as last season – on their failure for our success, as much as our own endeavours. The comparison is uncanny between this campaign and 2011-12; points are similar, goals scored and conceded (if you ‘normalise’ the Old Trafford aberration) likewise. Yet to me, hope is in short supply by which I mean that there does not seem any evidence that points towards an improvement on last time around. We are in a desperate battle to fall short of last season’s third place which having made the strides in the second half of the season, is deeply disappointing.
A rebuilding process has to start now, rebuilding belief on and off the pitch. This might be the toughest test of Arsène’s Arsenal reign.