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Arsenal’s Defining Mindset

As the 2014-15 Premier League season draws to a close, Arsenal’s manager Arsène Wenger and his players have begun talking about the prospects for next season. One underlying theme of their statements is the type of players the club is likely to retain and recruit, a topic always of interest to supporters.

The easing of the financial burden associated with the Emirates Stadium construction means that Arsenal are again in the market for top-flight talent and will compete with other elite clubs for those players. Among those clubs, physical skill is almost a given and, on balance, does not separate the teams much: For an Eden Hazard at Chelsea, there’s a Mesut Özil at Arsenal and a David Silva at Manchester City.

What does set the clubs apart from each other is a finely honed mentality. An exacting mindset, combined with a fortunate-bordering-on-sinister injury record, drove Chelsea to the league title.

At Arsenal, players’ mental constitution is emerging as the decisive factor in Wenger’s selections for his starting lineups and squads. This filter identifies players based on three major aspects:

  1. Decision-making
  2. Response to pressure
  3. Long-term outlook

Make mature and quick decisions

The players who’ve earned the manager’s trust over the course of this season have been able to strike a balance between patience and decisiveness. Relying on both maturity and agility of mind, they wait for the appropriate moment to act and know what to do when that moment comes.

The prime example of this dynamic is midfielder Francis Coquelin. Loaned out three times, virtually forgotten, and seemingly destined to leave Arsenal this summer, Coquelin was an emergency recall from Charlton in December and by January had made himself essential to this Arsenal team.

He’s a combative character in matches, but he has also shown the levelheadedness that Wenger values. As the manager said in describing Coquelin at a recent Barclays event, “It’s unbelievable how patient and open-minded you have to be.” (Arsenal.com, “Coquelin sticks to what he’s strong at“)

The counter-example is goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny. His nicotine-fueled indiscretions after his poor performance in Arsenal’s 2-0 defeat at Southampton laid bare his poor decision-making, prompted Wenger to bench him, and cast doubt on his Arsenal future.

Thrive under pressure

A second psychological requirement of Wenger’s players is their willingness to embrace pressure. I have written about this quality, which psychologists call “resilience,” in “Mesut Özil Plays for Arsenal, and You Do Not.” In short, Arsenal favors players who view the intense attention and stakes of elite competition as opportunities to improve performance.

It’s a mindset now common in the team. Center forward Olivier Giroud, the object of considerable scrutiny during his Arsenal career, spoke about the group’s response to pressure in a feature on the club Website. He said: “Nowadays you have to deal with that pressure. There is more media now, and social media as well – it is more than in the 1990s. But I like pressure, and the boys do as well.” (“ You must be able to deal with pressure“)

As a result, we see the team panic less often. For example, when Chelsea visited the Emirates in April with the clear intention of preventing Arsenal scoring, the Gunners did not go headlong into attack and leave themselves exposed to a counter-attack. This patient approach has been at work for much of 2015 when Arsenal have failed to establish an early lead in matches.

Take the long view

Meanwhile, on an individual level, we’ve seen players bounce back quickly from poor performances. Giroud’s response to his nightmare Champions League outing against Monaco–seven goals in his next seven starts–was not out of character for him or this team. They’ve been able to put specific performances, particularly subpar ones such as Monday’s loss to Swansea, into the proper perspective. One reason is that, unlike fans and the media, Arsenal’s players are viewing their work as part of a long-term effort.

Tim of 7amkickoff has frequently noted that Wenger manages for the long term. That description is backed up by the manager’s own statements, such as “Sometimes in the modern professional game [it] is, ‘OK. I go two years to Arsenal, I go two years to Real Madrid.’ But that doesn’t make a club. You need a core of people who want to live there and want to make their lives with the club.”

This philosophy seems like a fatal weakness. After all, it runs against the overwhelming trend among professional footballers, who by and large focus on their immediate, individual prospects. That’s the conclusion of Bobby Warshaw, a former Stanford player currently in the Norwegian first division, in his intriguing piece, “ Understanding the European Players’ Mindset is Key to Understanding Klinsmann.”

But what if, rather than weakening Arsenal’s position, Wenger’s preference for players committed to the long-term cause helps identify exceptional contributors? What if this highly refined filter gives Arsenal a competitive advantage in a business characterized by short-term prestige and financial gain?

Identifying players in this way and showing long-term faith in them are having an effect on their progress and perspective. Coquelin, for instance, recounted his difficult days on loan at the German club Freiburg in an interview with The Observer‘s Amy Lawrence: “Mentally it was tough. Then one day I woke up and realised: ‘OK, I am not going to play. Now I am training to be ready for next season at Arsenal.'” (“Francis Coquelin is the new Arsenal king of counter-bling“)

Coquelin’s statement provides evidence that Wenger’s long view is present among players as well. Listen carefully to their statements as summer transfers approach. If they hint at a longer time horizon, emphasize the value of pressure, or talk about patience, those players could be in Wenger’s plans. If they ignore those mental aspects and stress near-term reward, their short- and long-term futures may lie away from Arsenal.

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