All in the mind
In many ways 2008 has been a stormy year for Arsenal Football Club. Perhaps mirroring the volatility of the economy this year. We came into the year looking like strong candidates for the title. Much to the surprise of pundits and those inside and outside the club who were predicting our demise following the previous summer`s departures and board room wrangles. This resurgence was partly based on a sense of release following the departure of the, by then, preening, pouting, posturing presence of Henry. Who could have imagined that the departure of the clubs greatest ever striker would have such a positive impact on team psychology? By February the impressive new signing Eduardo had his leg broken in a reckless challenge, and Gallas had made his sentiments known too publicly for the tastes of media hyenas after we tossed away 2 very important points, in the same game, at a critical stage of the season. With youthful confidence undermined and further injuries our challenge stuttered and what would have been an acceptable 4 points behind the title winners at the beginning of the season had an air of anti-climax at the end. Sandwiched in between were cup defeats of a nature that we had experienced before in those competitions that we have tended not to take too seriously though the opponents made them less palatable than would usually have been the case.
Come the summer and the feeling was that provided we could keep the team together and maybe add where we could we should be more confident in mounting a challenge this season. The addition of Nasri was a positive move, as, despite palpable disappointment amongst many fans, was the addition of an experienced defender in Silvestre. Sadly though, ever looser contract laws and the fall in sterling made it much easier for European clubs to entice our players away and both Flamini and Hleb, who had previously made positive noises about their future at the club were on their way. Along with the unanticipated prolonged injury to Rosicky, and a failure to find a midfielder to genuinely strengthen the squad, the effect on our midfield as we have tried to adapt our play has made it difficult to sustain the consistency that a settled midfield had given us. So much so that we have had the Jekyll and Hyde experience of good wins against ManU and Chelsea together with the embarrassment of defeats against teams like Hull and Stoke.
This frustration, expressed volubly by many fans, has surfaced among the players. A lack of self control combined with the passion of ambitious players feeling the need to explain far too much led to the removal of Gallas as captain. This could only have happened if the majority of the team had failed to back their captain and assuming that was the case it was a boil that had to be lanced at some stage.
As we approach the end of the year the pound has fallen more than 10% further against the Euro, already sharply down in the previous 12 months, since the summer and those salaries on offer in Spanish and Italian clubs automatically look more attractive than would have been the case in the last transfer window. At the same time it makes the wages on offer in the UK market less attractive than hitherto and therefore not quite so easy to attract players of the level we would seek. From press reports it appears that Gallas, who has kept his counsel so far since having his stripes removed, is humiliated enough to want out with Milan supposedly a possible destination. We have the advantage of offering CL football which maybe enough to keep him on board for a little longer but financially it could be a convenient time for both him and Milan. If he feels his nose has been put out of joint his obstinate pride may make him feel more comfortable amongst the old men of Italian football than the uppity youngsters at Arsenal despite Wengers` assurances.
With one month to go 2008 has left more of a feeling of 'paradise postponed` than 'paradise lost` but it`s time to put it behind us. We need to clean up any disaffection that threatens team morale. While I am a great admirer of Gallas` talents as a footballer and believe that he has not had the understanding that his actions, mistaken as they may have been, should have received for the passionate and committed sportsman that he is, if his departure, as Henry`s did, serves to put the teams heads in the right place then it is a price we`ll have to pay. But Gallas is an intelligent man. He understands the value of acknowledging the crowd after every game irrespective of the result. It was he who sent Lehmann back to the centre circle at the end of last season to receive the acclaim that pleased both Lehmann and the crowd. He could just as easily turn that psychological appreciation inwards and, free of the artificial trappings of captaincy, command the respect of the other players in a different way.
What is important is that we get the players, young and old(er), concentrating on results and performances rather than any internal issues. Getting the psychological atmosphere right is a greater team building challenge than buying players and in many ways more important. Success tends to breed success and a good run of results in December would have a great healing effect on any tensions that still exist. While Wenger may well take advantage of the transfer window, I hope to add to the creative side of midfield, maybe he will have to take the opportunity to purge the team of any lingering disruptive influences, should they still exist too.
Whatever needs to be done will have to be done. Get it right and while we will still end the year with title aspirations looking someway less realistic than they did at the end of the 2007 it could yet set us up for a confidence building second half of the season. Given the treatment meted out to Eboue in the Wigan game some fans might wish to examine their own role in affecting team psychology.
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