We often hear the same thing from Arsene Wenger or various members of the Arsenal squad about mental toughness, team spirit ir the ability to bounce back from a disappointing performance or run of results. And they have done that a few times but on the other hand, it keeps happening.
The Gunners put on another insipid and lacklustre showing at Old Trafford yesterday and it made the pre-match comments from the manager, reported in another Just Arsenal article, when he spoke about the reasons why previous title challenges had faltered but that things were different now.
Wenger said, “‘What is different is that at that time we were losing momentum. This time it’s the opposite. We are chasing and gaining momentum. We have had two difficult games recently but overall the psychological situation is quite different.
‘We were very young at those times, with the famous incident with Gallas at Birmingham. And the mood of some players was to get the next contract somewhere else rather than to win the championship because we had to sell.
‘When we went into April some players were tapped up to go somewhere else and it was difficult to maintain the focus. That’s not the case at the moment.
‘Now we don’t have that problem at all. All the players are focused and want to win and have great solidarity. It’s down to showing how good we are. The psychological situation is completely different. In 2010-2011, we lost it because the spirit was not exactly what it should be because of tap-ups. At the moment, I think on the spirit front we are all right.
‘This is a team that’s very hungry. They want to win and I think they’ve shown that in the FA Cup in the last two years. This team wants to do well and is very conscientious and my job is more to relax them a little bit. They do not look at what happened five years ago, they look at what is in front of them. It’s certainly top, spirit-wise.’
I wonder what he thinks of his players and their spirit today because I did not see much evidence of desire and a determination to win things in that defeat to Man United. Our former striker and current TV pundit Thierry Henry was closer to the mark as he spoke to Sky Sports after the match.
He said, “”That wasn’t the performance of a team who wants to be champions,” said Henry.
“As an Arsenal fan, I’m thinking: ‘Can you show me you can be champions?’ and today they didn’t reassure me on anything. They were second-best in everything. It was a really poor performance.
“Don’t take away anything from Marcus Rashford or Man Utd today but Arsenal had to do more than that. I wanted Arsenal to come here and win well to send a message. You need to learn how to win games when you’re not at the top of your game.
“They’re still in the title race, but as an Arsenal fan, how are you going to feel confident going to Tottenham, to Everton, to West Ham?”
And his co-presenter Graeme Souness was even more scathing about the weakness that the Arsenal players showed.
He said, “Arsenal today bordered on being a joke for me.
“You turn up here, you’re playing a Manchester United side struggling with injuries, introducing young players, low on confidence and you’re thinking it’s tailored-made for a proper team to come here and do a number on an under-strength Man Utd and they didn’t.
“This is an Arsenal team you were saying a month ago was a real team. They’ve got to play Tottenham, Barcelona – by March 16 they could be out of all competitions. Arsene Wenger must be tearing his hair out.
“This Arsenal team just doesn’t have ‘it’ – and I’ll stand on my head if they prove me wrong and go and win this league. That today was totally unacceptable.
“Is it a case of big players going off the boil? Big players make other players play when things are going badly. Who did that today for Arsenal? Where’s a Tony Adams? Where’s a Thierry?
“It worries me that Arsene continually talks about his team being mentally tough – it’s almost as if he’s trying to persuade them. They’re vulnerable. They don’t look like a confident group.
“They had a chance to put down a real marker today and they’ve been so weak, so insipid. If I were an Arsenal supporter I’d be so angry right now. There’s so much about Arsenal to like but – in equal measure – so much to dislike.”
So why does Wenger keep talking up the team spirit? Is he trying to convince the players they have it or is he trying to convince himself? Or has he simply forgotten what it’s really like to be up for the fight?