The Psychology Behind Arsenal’s Winless Streak
“Winning is contagious…but so is losing. And the margin between winning and losing is paper thin.” – Tony DiCicco, World Cup Winning USWNT Coach (1999)
Arsenal football club find themselves in a place very few of the players, coaches, and more importantly, fans thought they’d be in 2020 season – mired in a winless streak hovering just above the relegation zone. It was an improbable thing to consider given the way the last season ended under first-year manager, Mikel Arteta.
But here they are, seemingly unable to break themselves from the rut they find themselves in, staring at an abyss that offers yet another challenge with a league match against Chelsea looming in the distance.
When I was going through my coaching courses here in the US, we spend a lot of time discussing what we term as the four pillars in football – technical, tactical, physical, and psychological. They are the foundation behind everything in the game, from training to the interactions that occur on the pitch.
Looking at Arsenal right now, the form looks more than just any kind of technical or tactical issue. Yes, there are issues with the construct of the squad, but this is also the core group of players that won the FA Cup and did post wins against Liverpool, City, and Chelsea to close out the season.
So, if we look beyond the technique and tactics of the players (which could be covered in a separate article) then we must look at the physical. Based on a review of the matches, Arsenal aren’t exactly getting pushed around nor do they seem to have the soft underbelly they used to be accused of.
That leaves Arsenal with one area of consideration, the psychological aspects of the game. There is that adage that sport is 10% physical and 90% psychological. For sports fans, the psychological aspect of the game is usually mentioned when we talk about momentum or pressure or getting tight. They’re all terms we’re familiar with but they get us a little bit out of the realm of saying our players aren’t right in the head.
The Ebb and Flow of a Season
As sports fans, we’ve long accepted that seasons have hills and valleys, that there is always a flow to it. It’s how a team manages a flow in all aspects of the season that can see them as either winners or losers when the points are tallied at the end of a season.
However, at some point the normal becomes abnormal. The routine becomes troublesome and overall, for fans, frustration sets in. Fans aren’t prone to deep looks into the psychological make-up of their team. A losing streak is met with cries of sacking the manager, the owner is a deadbeat, the players are crap, etc. Having patience and trying to understand are foreign concepts to fans who pay good money to have 90 minutes of escape.
What we’re seeing now with Arsenal is beyond just the basic “ebb and flow”. What we are seeing now is putting Arsenal in its single worst moment in its rich history, or as Ken Friar recently said to Mikel Arteta:
‘Mikel, it is not one of the more challenging years in #Arsenal’s history – believe me, I’ve been here 70 years – it is the most challenging & difficult year in Arsenal’s history’”
And the problem is, no one seems to be able to break out of it.
Psychological Theory Behind Losing Streaks
In some courses of thinking about the psychology of sports, there is a theory that explains that losing streaks in sports can be as long as some winning streaks.
In his paper, Winning Streaks in Sports and the Misperception of Momentum, Roger Vergin states that when teams get hot and win, confidence may build and drive a team to go on a run and win more. Some of this is down to the increased inspiration and the aspirations of the team growing as they overcome one hurdle after another and build one win after another. Again, victory makes the possibility of future victory possible.
On the converse side, when you lose, teams will tend to lose confidence as individuals and as a collective. The weight of expectations builds and aspirations are reduced, and when taken together it can act as a vacuum and sap any competitiveness out of a player or groups, increasing the likelihood of defeat.
So, what can we attribute Arsenal’s continued fall if Psychology is believed to be behind it? Vergin in his paper talks about the idea of the “fat cat syndrome”. The writer cites a paper from Hammer (1971) where essentially a team’s success could in fact be the catalyst for a downturn.
How would that apply to Arsenal in this moment?
Go back to their last win, a 1-0 win at Old Trafford, they were on 12 points a few points off the top, 1 point out of the Champions League qualifying spots. They had won the FA Cup only a few months previous. Beat Liverpool in the Community Shield, and were having positive runs in both the League Cup and Europa League group stages.
In essence, an overconfidence in self and team and perhaps overestimating abilities can have a detrimental effect and lead to a bursting of the bubble and a team come crashing back to earth.
Sure, losing happens to good teams all the time. But why does it go on?
Looking at Arsenal, you have to ask yourself are they really being outplayed by opponents? Being out-thought? Or are they masters of their own demise because they aren’t doing the simple things and are trying anything to break through whatever barriers they are encountering.
Yes, there are players we can all agree that likely shouldn’t be playing for Arsenal. But as is with all professionals, they don’t get to this level of play without some competence in technical and tactical ability, yet are we seeing that right now?
Poor passes, under-hit passes, no movement, static play, etc. Things you might expect from an off-night but as the streak goes on, it becomes more trademark than an inconsistent trend. What we’re seeing and what some psychologists suggest we are seeing is players no longer focused on relaxing and trying to do the right things but forcing things to make something happen.
There is a point at which players realise they are struggling, and they want to get out of it. Players, like supporters, believe in the idea of momentum and confidence and want to get a break so they can feel like they are coming out of their slump.
But time after time we see snatched-at shots, passes that are a few meters off from the target, or just plainly hit like medicine balls.
Back in my coaching experience and specifically working with goalkeepers who are having issues, we talk to them about just making the first save. Don’t worry about the mechanics of it, just make the save. Hell, we even tell them it doesn’t matter how you save it, just save.
The same principles can hold true for outfield players – make the first successful pass, then move. But when it doesn’t happen it creates that mental feeling of “oh here we go again”.
This mindset heaps incredible pressure on the player and it will be accompanied with an anxiety (head hangings) that can be overwhelming. The result is, as we said, mistakes happen.
The following question was posited to Dr. Craig Wrisberg, a professor of sport psychology at the University of Tennessee – “Can A losing streak impact a player’s performance?”
“It can if they let it. The only play that matters is the next one. Play forward… don’t drag the past into the present. We want the present clear, clean, so that we can fully devote our energy and attention to the present”.
That’s where Arsenal get into trouble because then we start seeing a team that looks like it’s getting better suddenly lose on the margins because of technical and tactical issues born from players trying to fix the situation as best they can.
So, how do they fix it?
Assuming you’ve read this far and, in some respect, believe this, then you’ve got ask the question: how do they break through it? It may be no simpler than first realising there is a mental block here. You know – the first step to fixing a problem is admitting you have one?
Denise Shull of the ReThink Group and developer of the Shull Method explains how an individual athlete has to first accept the circumstances are within their own feelings:
“The answer is in the feeling, so you need to understand what the feelings are. The athlete will already know some of these feelings, but probably not all until you get them talking about it. When athletes do talk about their slumps, they mention the inevitability – ‘It happens to everyone’ – and their sagging confidence, the trying too hard and the exasperating mystery of why it won’t end. They cannot understand how working harder, focusing on technique, being positive or recalling past success isn’t helping them to break through.
“The situation also creates an even bigger ego-hit than is obvious. The athlete has problem No1, which is the slump, and then they have an additional problem No2, which is the advice they’re getting is not working and they start to think ‘what’s wrong with me that none of the mental strategies are working?’ It’s an inadvertent but significant additional hit to the already bruised ego and ironically fuels the slump.”
Breaking a losing streak takes effort. It’s a process and we pick up from Dr. Wrisberg again on that matter:
“When I think of the mental game or the mental side of competing, I think there’s like three P’s. Process–focus, present tense, staying positive: expecting to succeed. Overcoming a losing streak is a matter of mindset and focusing on those three P’s.”
Again, we want to affirm that breaking out of a slump is difficult. The problem is all in the head and that’s stuff no coach or any session on the training pitch is going to fix.
Mikel Arteta’s Role in this?
I contend that one day Mikel Arteta will be considered a great coach. I also contend that it’s likely not to happen at Arsenal. It could because if he somehow turns this squad into winners, it will be a monumental achievement.
But in the meantime, he has a role to play in trying to help his players through the mental blocks of the game. As a coach, he was highlighted early on to his approach to players. His support and fight for them. Fact is, as a coach, that kind of non-technical work is what he likely is spending more of his time on, on a given day.
According to Athlete’s Assessment, Arteta’s biggest challenge will be in “managing the culture, interpersonal relationships, conflict, and communication”.
They offer the following steps for breaking out of a losing streak:
- The first step in breaking a losing streak is understanding what isn’t working and looking at ways to improve.
- To be able to do this step, Arteta needs self-awareness of the key elements of your program, and how each is performing.
- Gameday is the outcome. But what comes before? What are the symptoms that are causing the losing streak?
- Go back to the pre-season framework. Often when problems occur during the season, it’s because key elements or behavioural standards have dropped. High performance and team development is not an event, it’s an ongoing process.
- Accountability is critical in ensuring these behavioural standards are being met and that everyone is living up to the team identity they’ve committed to.
- Lastly, does the team actually believe they can win? Our solution for addressing this is building evidence, and examples are included below.
Of course, there are other issues at Arsenal. This is not meant to brush them over. But as you watch the team more and more, it’s hard not to think that something other than poor line-up selections and tactical decisions are what are preventing Arsenal from winning.
There are moments when Arteta is right, the team are trying but they aren’t succeeding. Maybe if they aren’t in a rut, the ball that hits the crossbar goes in this past Saturday. Maybe Saka’s open goal chances that could’ve won games, or equalised, go in.
But they aren’t and as we’ve mentioned players, like fans, are superstitious and they believe in momentum and when it’s not going, they become their own worst enemy.
For Arsenal as a collective, part of the response has to be getting back the basics or that pre-season framework Athlete’s Assessment mentioned. Make the first pass, make the next run, receive the ball, pass again. and go. Get through a half without conceding a goal. Or get the equaliser and tighten up and grow back into the match.
Bad teams will look good at some point and good teams will look bad. How the good teams respond to those times of looking bad often define them as a team. Are Arsenal the team that was able to beat Chelsea, Liverpool, and Man City and win an FA Cup? Or are they the team that lost to Burnley, Brighton (last season), and Aston Villa?
The answer is probably somewhere in between due to the issues of the past. But we won’t really know until such a time as the Gunners break through this slump. It will happen – it’s just a matter of when.