Mentality is, without question, a huge impactor in the sporting world. All of the cliches we’ve come to know and love over the last 25 years are often used because they ring so true: Having the mental fortitude to see a game out from a tough position is a talent in itself—and when it comes to the crunch, teams (and players) fly or die depending on whether or not they can handle the pressure.
It affects each and every one of the 20 teams currently in the Premier League, and it shapes performances at key moments. From the bottom to the top, no matter the situation, mentality has a big say on what happens in football.
Aston Villa, a club who have spent the large majority of the season in 20th place, have a side who have been destroyed mentally by a tough campaign and, despite possessing a pretty talented squad, will fold like a pack of cards all too easily.
Idrissa Gueye, Jordan Ayew, Jack Grealish...these are good players who are Premier League calibre, but it’s tough to tell exactly how good because their confidence is shot. Concede one goal and they cave, belief gone.
Everton, lying in 12th spot with 38 points, are a slightly different case. They’re underperforming according to the talent in their squad—and in comparison to the 11 teams above them—and have such an alarming propensity to collapse in front of their home crowd they can’t be considered anything other than fragile.
The boos from the Goodison Park stands eat away at their confidence, and their epic collapse against West Ham United last weekend probably isn’t that surprising, all things considered.
And, of course, there’s the four-horse title race we are enjoying so much. Now within sight of the finishing line having entered the final 10 games of the season, it’s clear who has the talent (and the points already accumulated) to challenge for first place, but the question of mental fortitude rises swiftly again.
Most commonly, it’s referred to as “bottle.”
Do Arsenal have the bottle to win the league? Do they have the players to pull themselves over the line and secure a first Premier League trophy for over a decade?
Do Leicester City have the bottle to continue this remarkable season, winning now that teams play them like the title challengers they are?
Do Tottenham Hotspur have the bottle to overcome the “Lads, it’s Tottenham” tag and do the unthinkable under Mauricio Pochettino?
As we edge closer and closer to the edge of the season, talk of bottle will become even more prevalent. For many, it’s the biggest threat to momentum, and it can all come crashing down when the pressure is on.
This past week we’ve been treated to a lot of talk about whether "X" has the bottle to win the title, and it’s already become a bit tiresome. It’s become a very convenient way of explaining away surprise losses; it’s a buzzword that everyone’s using, but there are—of course—still many other factors at play.
Take Arsenal, for example. Their detractors have had a lovely two weeks frolicking in the aftermath of the Gunners’ recent poor form (the FA Cup replay at Hull City excluded), and in particular their surprise loss to Manchester United’s youth/reserve team.
On the face of it, given the seismic difference in talent on each side’s respective squad list that day at Old Trafford, it’s easy to suggest Arsenal bottled it; that the nerves got the better of them and they fell when the pressure was cranked up.
But dismissing it as that entirely ignores the fact that a) Manchester United played very well, and b) Louis van Gaal put together a tactical plan that nullified the visitors brilliantly, and it was because of this—more than anything else—that Arsenal lost.
In that game, Van Gaal decided to deploy Juan Mata and Ander Herrera as midfield man-markers for Francis Coquelin and Aaron Ramsey, wrecking the Gunners’ ability to build out from deep. Their passing was poor all game, they couldn’t play the way they wanted to, and even when Olivier Giroud was substituted on, they didn’t use him as the outlet he could have been.
The other deciding factor in that game was that Gabriel Paulista decided not to mark United’s striker for the day.
To dismiss this Arsenal loss as “they bottled it” is reductive and, in truth, a bit unfair. Arsene Wenger deserves the blame for failing to outmanoeuvre Van Gaal, but this result came about, by and large, due to the nullification of the Gunners’ build-up play and a rough performance from one defender. That’s not 11 players buckling; it’s not a team wilting under the pressure. It's well done Van Gaal, do better Wenger.
Similar "bottling" accusations were levied at Tottenham Hotspur after their midweek loss to West Ham. Just as everyone was coming round to the idea that Spurs could indeed win the Premier League title, they slipped up and lost 1-0. “Bottlers.”
The first thing to point out is that West Ham are very good. At the time of writing, they are one point off the UEFA Champions League places in the league. The second thing to point out is that Spurs started without Danny Rose, Kyle Walker, Jan Vertonghen, Dele Alli and Mousa Dembele—five players who have been so key to their approach this season.
And finally, Slaven Bilic produced a tactical masterclass in how to blunt Tottenham’s effectiveness, switching to a 3-5-2 formation that enabled him to man-mark Pochettino’s aggressive full-backs one versus one. Aaron Cresswell (LWB) and Michail Antonio (RWB) were left to focus solely on man-marking, while the Hammers still retained a presence of three in the line and three in midfield.
Bilic effectively crowded the midfield with a mix of power and skill, outgunning Spurs’ Dembele-less set. Eric Dier and Ryan Mason failed to play through it, and with their width high up blunted by the nullification of their full-backs, Spurs ended the game with a measly nine shots (three on target) and zero goals, per WhoScored.com.
Again, this is an opportunity to celebrate what West Ham put together and praise Bilic, but instead, the default stance is to suggest Spurs are feeling the pressure and have begun to wilt when it matters the most.
The mental aspect of football is big and can have a serious effect on how the final stages of the season play out. Any manager, such as Sir Alex Ferguson, who can help his side overcome these jitters and have them play an unchanging brand of football when the pressure is on is considered a genius—and rightly so.
There will be some games between now and the end of the season that are lost because of the mental pressures surrounding it. Arsenal’s loss to Swansea City will be considered one of those, though again, it’s possible to absolve the Gunners there and say “hard luck”—they went one up and hit the woodwork twice, shots raining down on the Swans’ goal. How different it could have been. A game of inches, indeed.
But in among all the madness, it’s important to continue to ask why a team loses—not just scoff and mutter some tired cliche about the pressure getting to them. Yes, that happens, but to (wrongly) assume they just caved when it matters most takes away from the tactical and technical aspect of the Premier League and discredits its quality.
Arsenal lost to United because Van Gaal stymied Wenger’s build-up play, while West Ham beat Spurs because Bilic produced an ingenious tactical plan to deal with Pochettino’s overbearing full-backs—and then had the quality to take advantage. Those were the biggest factors at play in those games; they were the major reasons why Arsenal and Spurs lost.
Each team (bar two) has nine games left until the end of the season. It promises to be exciting and there will be upsets, but every time one occurs don’t just assume some bottled it.