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IS ARSENAL’S INEXPERIENCE COSTING THEM A CHANCE AT TOP 4?

This past Saturday Arsenal lost. . . again. For a team that was once in control of the Champions League destiny, losing three matches in row takes the fight out of their hands. For all the prognostications that looked at the last matches and saw either three wins or at least two easy matches they’ve been anything but. So, what has happened to Arsenal?

There will be a lot of analyzing of tactical issues, lineups, and managerial decisions, etc. What many people won’t look at is the biggest intangible of them all – the mental side of the game. Sure, for most fans the mental side is brushed off, usually dismissed with a wave of the hand and some form of “these are professionals they should know better.”

Around the football/soccer coaching community there is meme circling around often attributed to Pep Guardiola that football is 10% physical (technical development) and 90% mental. I doubt that is some true scientific finding and more a testament that the mental component of football is just as important as the technical side.

Many of you who follow me know I am a coach. I coach at a variety of levels. I work with various grassroots organizations here on the youth soccer scene in the US. I am head coach of a high school team (equivalent of around a U18 squad) and I contract out with a few universities to help them identify talent. My own personal story with the mental side was born out of experience not with one of my players but my own son.

My son is a college bound goalkeeper, intending to play at the Division 3 level of college here in the US but before all that happened, a few summers ago, he suffered from an illness that hospitalized him and forced him to learn to walk again. It was then that I got connected to Dr. Sara Erdner, sports psychologist. Dr. Erdner is a former sports psych with Major League Baseball’s Pittsburgh Pirates.

In my discussions with her about helping my son recover and get back on the field, we talked extensively about the experience my son had to draw on to help him get back on the field. She worked with me to try and help him visualize all the little successes he would need to get back on to the field. Why did she focus there? Because he had the experience to draw on.

So how does this relate to Arsenal?

First let’s let Jurgen Klopp give us a little insight:

“Maturity is going to be very important but it’s not the only one, it won’t help us much. But you can mix quality, desire, enthusiasm, mentality, and maturity… these are things that can’t be bought.”

What Klopp is talking about here is Liverpool’s race for the quartet. He’s talking about intangibles. He’s not focused on tactics or lineups, but the mental things needed by a team to compete and complete a historic event for something like winning the quartet.

And this is where Arsenal comes in.

We’ve all heard the stat, Arsenal are the youngest team in the Premier League this season, at 24 years and 242 days. That even made them the fifth youngest squad in the Big 5 European leagues.

The squad for the most part has been put and played together over the last7 months. It has continued to face turmoil right through the January window with the departure of Pierre Emerick Aubameyang. And when the pressure was off it went on an amazing run that saw them climb the table and move into the battle for Champions League qualification.

Then the international break had come. Two weeks off with a lot of positive stories and punditry (for the most part) about how this young Arsenal side had managed to really impress everyone who had once had them left for dead before even a ball was kicked.

What no one ever had considered, as everyone analyzed Arsenal’s run in, is that this a position that many (if any) of the players and its manager and staff hadn’t been in. Sure, Arteta had been along for the ride for some of City’s title runs but he’d never managed a run for Champions League qualification on his own.

His players didn’t have the experience to draw on to get them through this part of the season. It wasn’t all going to go well. There were always going to be injuries. There were always going to be times when a goalkeeper made miraculous saves to deny Arsenal shooters and there were always going to be missed chances. How Arsenal mentally navigated those hard times was just as important as which lineup Arteta put out there to address some of those issues.

A study in 2012 looked back at predicting winners of the National Basketball League. It asked these questions – why are teams that have won before so much better at winning again? IN the end it found that teams that won, especially winning in the playoffs has its own skillset independent at just being good at winning regular season games. In other words when it matters, the experience of winning, of getting there matters.

This is to me the biggest issue facing Arsenal. No, this doesn’t negate other issues, like taking a big gamble in the January window in terms of not bring in players but it is a consideration.

Dr Stan Beecham lays out the simple mindset winning athletes have:

If you think of people who consistently win, you would say, “Well, they win all the time because they want to win, right? They want it bad enough.” The reality is that’s not true at all. It’s that people that win and succeed at a high level, they don’t actually think about winning. They simply believe they’re going to do well.

In other words, if I know I’m going to win the game, then why would I even think about winning the game? If there’s some uncertainty as to how I’m going to do, “Am I going to win or not?” I will spend a lot of time thinking about that.

In the three matches, especially in the Palace and Brighton match, Arsenal did not look like a team with any belief in itself. It looked lethargic and devoid of any the sort of confidence and swagger it had in the run prior to the international break.

So, what’s it going to take for Arsenal to get that mentality. Part of it is what they are going through right now. It’s a puzzle that they must solve on the pitch. They need at least in the mental side of things to get some belief back in to them. That would likely come from being the first team to score.

Back to Dr. Erdner. When I first met her, we talked about how she worked with players who had returned from injuries or were in slumps and tried to get them to focus on (in the case of the baseball players she worked with) getting that first hit.

The same is Arsenal. They must get that first goal. It doesn’t mean they won’t concede a goal afterwards but scoring first will likely have the effect of helping them relax and get into the game. The longer a game goes without them scoring, the “oh here we go again” mindset comes back.

Unfortunately for Arsenal, this is part of the maturation process for such a young team. They must find a way through and come out with experience that helps them push through it as they experience it again next season.

It’s also why its important that in addition to the young, extremely talented players Edu and Arteta are bringing in, they must surround them with talented players who have the experience to draw on and can see them through these types of moments.

Yes, it is painful watching Arsenal lose those matches. As fans wins and losses are all that matters. But sometimes we, those of us in the alternative media have to present different whys. There will be lots of articles written detailing the tactical, personnel and managerial issues that have occurred in the last three matches.

They are all valid. So is this. Arsenal will get through this. They may very well fall short of getting back into the Champions League this season. But the lessons learned will be invaluable as the get up and go at it again next season.

That being said, there are still plenty of games to play and an unexpected performance can turn things around in a heartbeat. And truthfully, that’s why we watch and that’s why they play.

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