Arsenal's Missing Ingredients in the EPL: Mental Fortitude & Discipline

Darius StoneContributor IFebruary 4, 2010

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 09:  Manager of Arsenal Arsene Wenger speaks to Armand Traore of Arsenal during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Everton at Emirates Stadium on January 9, 2010 in London, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

This week, a thread of discussion has been picking up as we naval gazed and reflect on our last game against Man United. I thought I’d flesh out the thread of discussion a bit more.

In chewing the fat about what it will take for Arsenal to pick themselves up and mount a fight back, the main question for me is what to do in this last mile to the first trophy for this team.

I’ve long held the conviction that not only do we have the personnel to do the job, the team also have the physical stamina and technical capability to be that very successful team.

The last piece of the jigsaw is all in the mind. It’s the mental fortitude that has been lacking at key moments. By improving on this, I believe the journey in this last mile will be more bearable.

I think it would be unfair not to recognize the fighting spirit and mental strength the team has already shown. A perfect example is the run of 10 unbeaten games following the loss to Chelsea on 29th November 2009. The least this should tell us is that this team is capable of fighting back.

It is for this reason that I feel strongly that the supporters and players need to work together to help each other through the difficult patches and in the quest for that elusive title.

I want to look at what I feel is the key factor in this title challenge and the aspect of our game that we’ve fallen short on several times this season. It’s my belief that the time it has taken for the team to get familiar and effectively execute play within the 4-3-3 system is the primary issue.

Arsenal’s strategy this season has been designed to take advantage of the key skills set that our players excel in—technique, stamina and pace. Success of this system of play is dependent on two main factors.

First, the ability of our ball carriers to keep possession effectively. Second, the discipline and determination to maintain a high work rate that is needed to press the ball and close down opponents quickly when we don’t have the ball.

The transition from defence to attack is a focal point. These are the times we can either be a devastating attacking force, or if not properly organised, be vulnerable to a good counter attacking side.

The game plan is most effective when we move the ball at pace from defence, through midfield and into attacking positions. Complimenting this is the speed and technique employed on our flanks, primarily by the full backs who will push forward to support any given attack.

From this point of view, we are more than likely to be playing a 3-1-6 while in full flow. This is also the point where our talisman up front playing the ’false no. 9’ has to be very effective.

By linking play with the five attackers around him, our lead striker also needs to hold the ball well and use it well to draw the opposing centre halves to follow him as space opens for the oncoming attackers.

This is one reason, for example, why the Arsenal midfield is scoring a ridiculous amount of goals. However, this system of attacking is heavily dependent on ball retention and in particular, dependent on our ball carriers like Cesc, Rosicky, Nasri, Van Persie, Arshavin, Eduardo, Diaby, Ramsey, Wilshere et al, not to lose the ball willy nilly.

The speed at which our movement and fluency allows play to move through the midfield in practice should make it safer for us if and when we lose the ball in the final third, nearer the opponents goal.

At this point, the flip side of the system should kick in. The three front men should be in a position to press very early with the hope that two things will happen. First, the opposition will make mistakes in dangerous areas during the early pressing, and we can pounce. In fact, we have scored a significant amount of goals as a result of this.

Second, the early pressing should buy time for the rest of the team to reorganize defensively. Usually, when the full backs are attacking, Alex Song and the centre halves will hold the wall.

If you ever wondered why Song gets more yellow cards than most players, consider that perhaps it’s just a tactic of the dark art of slowing the game down. It’s his job.

Unfortunately, not every team is going to allow Arsenal to impose this game plan, for it’s a guarantee that they’ll be given a good hiding. This is why the transitions where either team loses the ball are so important.

In Arsenal’s case, our Achilles' heel is that when we lose the ball in that attacking flow, we’re still not adept at reorganizing quick enough.

Therefore, it's critical that the three most forward attackers press like mad immediately after we lose the ball. Once we miss out on that opportunity, a chain of events usually starts that results in pressure, especially to the retreating fullbacks who will be more than likely exposed.

In many cases, we quickly recover and hold fire, either by sheer individual brilliance, collective team work, or Song just being Song and taking one for the team.

There are teams who are equally good at moving that ball from defence to attack at speeds that will give us difficulty. The law of averages suggest that some of these counter attacks against us will result in goals.

Granted, such a system is risky for the most part, but I’ll tell you what, it’s bloody exciting to watch when it’s working in full flow. There’s also an element of ”we’re going to score more goals than you, and we’ll win the match.”

It’s also true to say that if individuals on the pitch don’t do what they’re supposed to do or don’t pull their finger out, it’s easy to see how a chain of events can end up with our goal keeper picking the ball from the back of his net. This is where the mental fortitude and determination comes in.

Discipline is paramount to ensure that—the work rate needed to press early is maintained throughout the game; the confidence needed to retain the ball in difficult situations is not lost; the decision making needed to reorganize defensively when an attack breaks down is top notch; and the need for intelligence and good decision making to read and anticipate is always evident.

When we don’t get our way on the pitch because of whatever strategy the opposition is employing, Arsenal’s key priority should first be to make sure that the team is working as an effective defensive unit. I feel sometimes that too much focus is placed on goal scoring on our part. I’d suggest that we don’t have a problem scoring goals.

We will go through fallow patches. It is during these times when the almost robotic and mechanical discipline of correctly defending as a unit from the players at the front needs to kick in. We should also be very disciplined in knowing when to reign in our attacking instincts and protect a draw or a narrow win because the game calls for us to be pragmatic.

Sounds like a project, huh? We call it Wengerball. It was never designed to be straight forward, but I’ll tell you what, it’s ecstatic to watch, and I wouldn’t change it for all the tea in China.

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