Sunday, November 29, 2009

We have nothing to fear but (the lack of) fear itself

"The score is a very unfair reflection of the game, but it is the score and we cannot change it now."

That's what Arsenal's manager, Arsene Wenger, said after the crushing 3-0 loss at home to Premier League leaders Chelsea on Nov. 29. Wenger, always an outspoken manager and, in my humble opinion, one of the smartest, most thoughtful professional coaches in the history of sports, could've easily blamed the team for the loss, but instead spent his interview pointing fingers at the moon, the stars, and everything in between as long as they didn't zero in on the team.

But ...

That's my question. It's a simple question, one that we probably don't ask enough in our society.


Why isn't it the team's fault? Why isn't this pathetic result, one that could end Arsenal's title hopes for yet another season, placed solely on the players who lacked focus, discipline, energy, and strength for 90 minutes in one of the biggest matches of the season? Why isn't the team to blame for finding it impossible to get up the mental and physical energy to win? To outwork Chelsea? To be the tenacious underdogs? Why isn't the manager holding up a mirror in front of the dejected locker room and telling his team, "Want to know who to blame for this loss?"

Did the referee, who absurdly ruled out an Arsenal goal early in the second half that would've put the score at 2-1, convince the team to jog around the pitch and watch with slumped shoulders as Chelsea streaked up and down the field with endless passion?

"Very unfair. How can he not see Eduardo kicking Cech when it was a Chelsea player who stops him from controlling the ball? The 2-1 was a very important goal in this kind of game, and that was a big mistake by the referee."

There he goes again.

This game wasn't decided by one goal. Frankly, it wasn't decided by anything that Chelsea did either. They got a lucky goal from Didier Drogba after William Gallas, who may or may not still support his former club Chelsea, didn't find the energy to stick a boot out to deflect a cross that streaked across his immobile body. The second goal, an own goal from the brilliant Thomas Vermaelen, also swept by Gallas' misplaced leg, deflecting off Vermaelen into the Arsenal net. The third goal, a free kick by Drogba, was the product of a shocking goalkeeping decision from Manuel Almunia, always nervy in big games, who set up a wall in front of Drogba to cover the near post and then somehow decided to lean toward the near post on Drogba's kick, leaving his far post, the post he's supposed to be covering (hence the goddamn WALL), wide open.

This game wasn't a product of Chelsea. It was a waste byproduct of Arsenal indigestion. It was a pathetic lack of hustle from a team desperate to prove, after last week's underwhelming showing against Sunderland, that it had the teeth and the fortitude to compete with Chelsea and Manchester United for a title this season. It was the last gasp of an undertalented team that disappeared mentally after a leisurely international break (that saw the team's top scorer, Robin van Persie, rupture ankle ligaments and spend the next five months rehabbing). Once again, the manager blamed the international break, and not the players, for the lack of form in the loss against Sunderland.

But that game wasn't about Sunderland either. Sunderland didn't win that game, Arsenal lost it. Just like we
lost today. There is a fundamental problem with the genetic structure of this Arsenal side ... these home-grown boys have spent too much time under the lavished lights of the finest facilities and have forgotten how to roll up their sleeves and outwork, out-hustle, and outplay the competition.

This game was never about Chelsea, it was about an Arsenal team that doesn't have the
capacity to win.

"The problem we have at the moment that we face is that people will not believe in us, so we have to make sure that lack of belief does not diminish our belief."

What belief? What belief does this team have in itself? The only belief I see is that this team thinks it
should win every game by default. I see that belief in the team. It's the only explanation for the way we've played football for the past few years. It's the only thing that explains why every single team in the league, from the top to the bottom, is willing to outwork us collectively. This is a team that doesn't want to outwork the other team. They want the goals to simply come out of the flow of the game. They want the goals to form from stringing together a collection of passes like chromosomes on a strand of DNA. I see a team that doesn't understand what it takes to win. I see a team that concedes one goal physically and another three or four mentally after the first physical goal goes in. I see a team that bleeds in the way they play football right now. A team that exemplifies contradiction: They have confidence that they should win, but they have no confidence that they can win once they concede a goal.

"I never had the impression that we could not win this game we were quite on top for a lot of the game."

Maybe that's the problem right there. Maybe that dumbfounding blindness is the problem. Maybe these kids, still learning how to be professionals, still learning how to win, need to be pressed. Weed out the mentally weak by challenging the players. Don't coddle them in hopes of preserving their fragile minds ... challenge them, beat them down, harden their spirits to the point where losing isn't an option, being out-hustled isn't an option. Arsene Wenger is a brilliant man, a football genius and one of the most philosophically astute men on the planet. I passionately respect and admire him as a coach and a person. But Arsenal should've been scared to play Chelsea, not to the crippling point, but to the point of motivation. Fear is an incredible motivator, and going into a game with the mindset that if they don't -- on every kick, run, and tackle -- work harder and give more effort than Chelsea, Arsenal would've had a chance to win this game.

But the manager and his players never thought they would lose. And that default, that conflicting confidence and anti-confidence, is why Arsenal won't win the title. The players are to blame, the manager is to blame. It's time to stop shouting at the wind for blowing through a window left open. It's time to stop punching the ocean when a poorly-built ship sinks.

It's time for the philosophy to change.

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