It was a strange admission by Arsene Wenger, following Arsenal’s midweek 2-1 defeat at home to Watford, that the result was due, in no small part, to a flaw in the mentality of his players.
“We were not mentally prepared, not mentally ready to deal with the duels,” Wenger told a news conference. “You don’t make 47 points from 23 games if you have no physical power, but you have to switch it on at 100 percent every time in Premier League. That is what it’s about.”
Wenger was undoubtedly speaking a truth, making reference to the frailty that many outside of the Emirates Stadium have pinpointed for months, even years, as the Achilles heel of Arsenal’s trophy-winning ambitions. But if the French manager was blaming his players, many of them would have been within their rights to turn the accusation around and ask just why, and how, he allowed it to happen in the first place?
Turn the clock back to Wenger’s early years at Arsenal and there was no issue when it came to the mentality of his players. The likes of Patrick Vieira, Emmanuel Petit, Tony Adams and Martin Keown could never have been accused of not being “mentally prepared” for a game against any opponent, never mind a mid-table outfit who had arrived at the Emirates having seen their season as good as ended three days earlier by an FA Cup defeat at the hands of League One Millwall.
That group of Arsenal players were of the kind who would motivate themselves and take a collective responsibility to face any challenge that lay in front of them, but if the class of 2017 are not of the same mould, then surely it is Wenger’s job to ensure they are fully focused and prepared?
If Arsenal’s players trotted onto the pitch against Watford feeling complacent or half-hearted, then the buck stops with Wenger, who should have identified the malaise in the build-up to the game and resolved it before the first whistle.
Even if he did spot it and attempt to rectify it at some point, his message did not get across. Perhaps his four-match touchline ban contributed to the problem against Watford, as he was unable to make a difference from the technical area, but that is no excuse either.
Wenger has built the squad at the Emirates, forged it in his personality and identified every single player currently pulling on the red shirt. If there is an issue with mentality, it will not simply be a one-game problem, but something that has been allowed to develop over time. Quite simply, the manager has failed in his duty to the team and the club.
The best coaches and managers have historically been great motivators — sports psychologists before the role had even been invented.
Sir Alex Ferguson regularly referenced Vince Lombardi, the legendary Green Bay Packers coach, as an inspiration throughout his managerial career, often citing the American’s “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” aphorism as a motivational statement used within his Manchester United dressing-room.
Jose Mourinho is another who places huge importance on mentality, with the Portuguese once insisting that everything he says in a prematch news conference is specifically tailored for the ears of one particular audience: his players.
The best and most successful managers know that getting into the heads of their players carries as much importance as the work done on the training pitch and on the tactics board.
Claudio Ranieri cracked the code with Leicester City on the way to their remarkable Premier League title triumph last season, with the Italian cleverly saying the right things at the right time, not only to motivate his players, but to alleviate the burden of expectancy and pressure to succeed as the finishing line approached.
This season, with Leicester hovering above the relegation zone, Ranieri has found that his message no longer works quite so well, or that his players have stopped listening, and that appears to be the situation that Wenger finds himself in at Arsenal.
The intriguing aspect of Wenger’s accusation is that, perhaps for the first time since his “Invincibles” won the Premier League in 2003-04, there have been genuine signs that a winning mentality was returning to the club. There have been a series of crucial late goals — stoppage-time winners against Burnley (twice) and dramatic late fight-backs at United and Bournemouth, for example.
Glimpses of steel have begun to creep through, with Alexis Sanchez lifting and inspiring those around him with his will to win and fighting spirit. But attitude reflects leadership and if Wenger’s players did switch off against Watford, it is because their manager was unable to prevent it before it happened.
Mentality should not be a problem when Arsenal travel to Chelsea this Saturday, needing to win to keep alive their diminishing hopes of winning the Premier League title.
But it is not the games against Chelsea, United, Liverpool or Tottenham that Wenger needs to motivate his players for. It is on the nights when they play the likes of Watford that Wenger needs them to remember that it is all about winning and that half-measures will never succeed.
The only man who can make that happen is the manager and, ultimately, the buck stops with him if they fail.
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