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Arsenal’s Next Steps

As the Chelsea defeat came to a close on Sunday, I thought, “That’s just great. We’ve got two weeks to dwell on this.”

The second international break of the season affords fans and pundits 13 days–until the visit of Hull City on October 18–to pore over what went wrong at Stamford Bridge. Thanks to social media, blogs, and podcasts, we also have the means to linger over and discuss the squad’s shortcomings.

Expect plenty of moaning and armchair expertise.

The professionals weigh in

Fortunately, the professionals see no value in wallowing in defeat. The post-match comments of Jack Wilshere and Per Mertesaker showed a constructive, mature perspective.

The occasionally temperamental Wilshere observed to Arsenal Player, “That’s the difference at this level. You’re playing against teams who, when you’re on top, you have to make it count; otherwise, they’ll punish you. And they did.”

With a similarly matter-of-fact tone, Mertesaker, the team captain on the day, told Sky Sports, “We have to admit they are better than us–still better–and we have to learn quickly.”

This conclusion suggested the squad will take a series of next steps, consisting of:

  1. Analyzing the performance
  2. Avoiding paralysis and blame over mistakes and failures
  3. Applying what the group learned from the analysis
  4. Turning attention to the Hull match

Or, as manager Arsène Wenger put it, “They won. Congratulations to them. And let’s go to the next game.”

The cold, clear light of day

Assessing the performance soberly and focusing quickly on the next objective do not necessarily appeal to many supporters. They’re more comfortable with a prolonged emotional reaction, for several reasons:

  • They can only view the last match and not the process of preparing for the next one
  • They experience an ongoing flood of information about that last match
  • They’re subjected to taunts by opposing fans and even fellow Arsenal supporters
  • They can’t call on the refined psychological traits and techniques available to elite athletes

I wrote recently about this psychological edge in “Mesut Özil Plays for Arsenal, and You Do Not,” and the ability to react to setbacks constructively strikes me as another expert adaptation to the stress associated with high-level competition. It contributes to a mental framework that permits optimal physical performance.

“When our brains get caught up in thoughts from the past, or thoughts of the future, it creates a stress response, and we can’t use the part of the brain that keeps us engaged in the moment,” Kirsten Race, Ph. D., an expert on psychological awareness, has said. In other words, there’s a neurological reason for Arsenal’s players to place the Chelsea result in its proper context: Their brains won’t be fully geared to succeed in their next match if they’re mulling  their last one.

In previous seasons, Wenger praised his team’s resilience, which has always been, like anything psychological, a work in progress. The hesitant performances after last season’s high-profile disasters suggested that Arsenal team had not evolved mentally to the best effect.

We will see when Hull City visits the Emirates on October 18 how the current group of Arsenal players copes with its first major setback of the season. The good news is, Sunday’s 2-0 loss wasn’t debilitating, and public statements by the players and manager point to a healthy attitude. That’s a better position than many supporters occupy at the moment.

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