Arsenal’s chance of winning this strange Premier League title race will improve dramatically, I believe, if they make one big psychological change. Starting against Manchester United this weekend, they have to prepare themselves to deal with the strengths of the opposition before they can impose their own brand of football.
I believe the league this year is up for grabs – and Arsenal have been the most consistent team in the competition since January. In a week when they have been damaged by their Champions League display they could end up with a single domestic focus. Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea are scrambling around in the Champions League but Arsenal could have the clearest run.
A few weeks ago on Monday Night Football I used the words “arrogant” and “naïve” in relation to Arsène Wenger’s team. They were redirected towards Wenger, which was not my intention.
Now that Manchester City have ceased to look imperious (and with Chelsea blowing up), both Arsenal and Manchester United will go into this weekend thinking they can be the ones to capitalise.
So Wenger has an opportunity to end the 11-year wait for a title. But Arsenal need to make a vital change.
Returning to my arrogance and naivety line, I want to revisit my own thought processes before a big fixture. You always felt you were in a dressing room of team-mates you could trust; team-mates who were thinking about the risks and dangers we faced.
Thierry Henry’s belief that Arsenal and Wenger “will not change” their style of play prompted me to think about it from the Arsenal players’ perspective.
If I’m Per Mertesacker this weekend, on the Friday morning before a Sunday game of this magnitude I would be thinking: I need to communicate to Hector Bellerín that Memphis Depay will always try to cut inside on to his right foot, and that I need to be there inside to help him, although I need Bellerín to show him the outside.
Is Bellerín thinking he has to stay tight to Memphis, and to pull Aaron Ramsey back towards him, so that I (Mertesacker) don’t get exposed by Anthony Martial in a channel one-on-one for pace?
Is Monreal thinking that Juan Mata goes into a little pocket in between him and the midfield and that Coquelin and Sánchez will need to tighten that midfield space in front of Monreal so that Mata doesn’t get that space in front of him?
How do I communicate to Cazorla and Coquelin that they need to pull Özil back so that they don’t get outnumbered by United’s midfield three and Coquelin can pick up Rooney.
How do I make Theo Walcott think about closing down Daley Blind and not let him come out with the ball – because Blind is United’s best defender on the ball.
How do I get my messages across, as Per Mertesacker, that United have scored from some cheeky free-kicks and corners, so that we are all really alert, and not switching off or turning our backs? How do I get across that we’ve lost a big game already against Chelsea by losing our discipline?
When I played, I felt I was alongside a group of players who, 48 hours before the game, were already in alert mode. We all started with the premise: what are the dangers, what are the risks to winning this match. What might leave us with a bloody nose that might mean we don’t win this game and we don’t win this league.
You knew Keane and Bruce and McClair and Irwin and others would wake with those same thoughts. And Scholes, Giggs, Ferdinand and Carrick. And many more besides.
There were always three to four United players who understood the clear and present danger in a match. Our job was to communicate that to the players whose first instinct was to win the game: a Ronaldo or a Tevez. There is more to it than saying – ‘Oh watch him, he’s dangerous’. It’s about factual information that can be relayed to a fellow professional without him thinking it’s a negative message. It’s a key to winning.
Once you have dealt with the risks, dealt with the other team’s strengths, you can play your football. And off that base Arsenal would feel they play the best football in the league, with a high possession rate and fantastic one-on-one players who could go on and win them the match. Ramsey, Özil, Sánchez, Walcott, Cazorla.
So the arrogance and naivety would be these Arsenal players waking up on Saturday morning and not seeing the dangers posed by United, who are better organized, with a better defensive structure. It would be a mistake for Arsenal just to wake up thinking: we play better football, we keep better possession of the ball, we can break United down.
If that approach fails, you are going to be called soft, flakey, flimsy. Your character is going to be questioned. ‘Mentality’ in big matches starts 48-hours before kick-off. It starts with a player thinking: how am I going win that duel with Memphis Depay or Anthony Martial. It’s about little details. And it’s not about sacrificing principles. It’s about respecting your opponent, nullifying his weapons and allowing your own strengths to prevail from a sound foundation.
I may be wrong, but I sense that Arsenal players go into training on Friday morning thinking about how they’ll pass the ball, score with a bicycle kick, how much fun they are going to have. On the Saturday morning they still might not be switched on. Sunday morning is too late. It’s fatal to think like that before a big game.
My idea was that by the time you went to bed the night before that game you had played the game and imagined it in your head. You had played every pass and made every movement.
Over these past three or four years I don’t believe Arsenal have prepared mentally for the biggest games. It’s not enough for them to play their way and assume it will bring them out on top. It’s never enough. Big games are won by the details, the thought process, the preparation. If Arsenal make that change, they can really push for the title.