Can Leicester hang on?
by Tim Charlesworth
One of the (many) things that winds me up when I am listening to people talk about football is the accusation that the team is not ‘motivated’ or ‘trying hard enough’. The observation that players should be trying harder is generally up there with the idea that people with a mental illness should ‘snap out of it’, or bereaved people should ‘move on’.
This is professional sport, not park football, there are very few occasions on which it makes any sense for a professional footballer to take their foot off the gas. They are always playing for something. Even if they want to leave the club, better performances will lead to higher wages at the next club.
Very occasionally you get a player who realises that they cannot cut it any more, or decides not to work so hard. They know they will never get another contract, and the only option open to them is to collect their money until the end of their contract and retire, or drop down the leagues.
A recent example of this was Sebastien Squillaci, who seemed to lose any hope after about six months at Arsenal, and simply let his career slide away. Faced with deteriorating effectiveness, most players desperately seek first team football as an alternative to ‘seeing out the contract in the reserves’. Even Squillaci has been a regular for Ligue 1 Bastia for three seasons since leaving Arsenal.
Another example of this is Emmanuel Addebayor (bless him!), who is truly raging against the dying of the light with his latest (apparently futile) move to Crystal Palace. Addebayor got his big pay day when he moved to City. All his subsequent moves seem to be motivated more by a genuine desire to play, rather than to gather cash.
The fact is that most professional footballers love the game. They love playing and they enjoy training. These are not average individuals.
A Premiership football career requires massive dedication and sacrifice. It is difficult to spend endless hours on football drills if you don’t enjoy it. There are the odd occasions when outrageous talent, combined with pushy parents and coaches can get a player through, but this is rare.
Most players who appear to be ‘effortless’ are conning you. They actually spend hours and hours practicing to look like they are not trying. They tend not to mention this, as it suits their marketing image for people to believe that they are ‘naturally gifted’.
Believe me, any player that you see playing for Arsenal, has worked very hard to get there. If you ever could detect a reduction in effort, it would probably be on the training ground (which fans don’t see), not during a match. A player’s default setting is to give 100%, especially during a match, and it takes quite a lot to stop them from doing so.
Can effort levels dip during a match?
Of course, there are occasions in a match where the effort levels will drop. This usually occurs when the outcome of a match is decided, either in the case of a victory or a defeat.
This was recently noticeable towards the end of the Barcelona and Everton matches. In such circumstances, both teams can drop into a sort of implicit ‘conspiracy truce’ where the ‘snappiness’ of the tackling declines and everyone drops a little deeper position-wise. Players are quite used to playing like this, because it is similar to what they do in training. It is a way of playing that avoids injury and excessive fatigue. It is perfectly sensible to do this in circumstances where the outcome of the match is very unlikely to change. Effectively, the players are saving their limited energy for a game in which their effort might actually change the result.
There are also rare occasions in which the subconscious efforts made by players may reduce. This can happen if players are upset with each other or with the manager (or maybe even the fans). This may have happened to Chelsea earlier this season (but see alternative explanation below). However, I don’t think that Arsenal have been affected by any of these scenarios in recent weeks. I don’t think there was any lack of effort or motivation against Watford or Swansea. If you look at the statistics from these games like distance run, they suggest no diminution of effort. There may be occasions on which the team ran out of ideas a little bit, but not when they ran out of motivation.
And that brings me to an interesting observation about Leicester City. They do appear to be getting a little bit in excess of 100% out of their players. The movement of the players on the pitch seems slightly manic, the determination is palpable. They look like an irresistible force.
The way they are playing, with hard fought 1-0 victories reminds me of Blackburn Rovers during their run in to the 1994-5 title, and even Leeds in 1991-2. Both of these teams seemed to be winning by sheer force of will towards the end of the season. They seemed to draw on deep reserves of energy and determination that are not usually available to players. Interestingly, in both cases, the teams did not recover from their gargantuan efforts. Both teams failed to put up any sort of defence to their titles, and never recovered their competitiveness.
Can a team exhaust itself, and did Chelsea do it?
I am beginning to wonder if the same thing happened to Chelsea last season. We haven’t seen such a poor title defence for a while in the Premiership. All the teams that have won recently have not needed to go into deficit in order to do so. Manchester United, Chelsea, and Man City have had deep and talented squads. But maybe this is changing, as the Premiership becomes more competitive. Maybe the Premiership is now so tough to win, that it is becoming very difficult to repeat. It is now seven consecutive seasons where the Champions have failed to defend their title.
The 2014/15 Chelsea had a wonderful start to the season, based on brilliant runs of form from two newly signed players, Fabregas and Costa. Basically Fabregas passed it to Costa, who scored. This is a neat trick, and Chelsea built up a large lead in the Premiership on the back of it.
As Fabregas and Costa inevitably faded, Chelsea hung on for grim death, relying on defensive solidity and Eden Hazard. I remember thinking that the way that Chelsea celebrated their 0-0 draw at the Emirates in April 2015 was a bit strange. Arsenal’s late run was impressive, but Chelsea still looked pretty secure at the top.
With the benefit of hindsight, I suspect that Chelsea were hanging on more than anyone realised at the time (possibly deceived by the cunning Mourinho). Chelsea were, perhaps, a lot more worried by Arsenal’s late charge than anyone really appreciated, hence the celebrations.
Hazard’s loss of form is one of the great mysteries of this season. I don’t accept that he has lost motivation because he wants to move. Hazard is doing himself no good at all, and his previously high stock is plummeting fast. This looks involuntary to me, and will affect any kind of deal that he can get for himself, if and when he leaves Chelsea. Mourinho put a lot of pressure on him to perform towards the end of last season, and he rose to the challenge, but its beginning to look as if he may have done so by dipping into irrecoverable reserves.
The parable of Petit
Hazard’s travails remind me a bit of Emmanuel Petit. By any standards, Petit had the most incredible season in 1997/8. He moved to Arsenal in the summer, played brilliantly in the double team (after a slow start), established himself in the French team and won the World Cup (scoring in the final from a Patrick Vieira assist).
After the world cup, he was a 27 year old with the world at his feet. Unfortunately, he had played over 50 games that season, many of them very competitive, and he would never be the same again. He remained a dominant player on the pitch, but niggling knee injuries made those performances increasingly rare. Our failure (by one point) to defend the title in 1998/9 was very much the story of a failure of Vieira and Petit to reproduce their form of the second half of 1997/8, and Petit’s absences were the most obvious symptom.
I think Petit had just given too much in the previous season. He had taken his body beyond the point of natural endurance in the joyful euphoria of Arsenal’s winning run at the end of the season, and then France’s similar run in the World Cup. And this kind of phenomenon has been observable in other periods of Arsenal’s history.
The run of ten consecutive victories from March to May 1998 was incredible, and the team made it look easy, but as soon as the title was won, they lost the next game 4-0. The failure of the Invincibles to defend their title in 2004/5 is a bit strange in the context of their dominance the previous season. The team looked tired at certain points. The achievement of the 49 games may have come at a price.
What is long-term fatigue?
Long-term tiredness is a curious phenomenon in human beings, and is not well understood by science. We understand short-term tiredness. We understand that running a marathon will cause micro-damage to muscles and tendons that require rest to heal and various chemical imbalances in the body that need to be restored by the body’s metabolic processes. Similarly, we understand the relationship between sleep deprivation and tiredness. We even understand some of the mechanisms in the brain that cause this. However we have very little understanding of long-term fatigue.
We will all be familiar with periods in our life when we have worked very hard, and we feel exhausted in a way that a long weekend with plenty of sleep cannot get rid of. We are mysteriously able to avoid injury or illness during these periods, but such things often catch up with us soon afterwards.
Major events like moving house, or having a new child can also elicit this response. Sportsmen seem to suffer from a similar kind of fatigue. Tennis players suffer if they play too many tournaments in a season and footballers seem to suffer if they do too much in a season.
It seems that humans have the ability to draw on some kind of reserve of energy, both mentally and physically. We almost seem to be able to ‘borrow’ future energy. Presented with a prize in front of our noses, such as a Premiership, a World Cup, a new house or a new baby, we may not even be aware that we are operating at over 100%. But if we do so, there is a consequence, and the payback period can be long.
Arsene Wenger sometimes talks about being in the ‘red zone’ to describe this scenario, almost as if a player is building up an overdraft. Alexis Sanchez is an example of this. His feats last season were superhuman, and he seemed to be able to draw on deep wells of energy. He seemed to defy commonly understood rules about fatigue, but there may be a consequence to this extraordinary spell of energy, and we may be seeing it now. So if you want Arsenal players to ‘try harder’, be careful what you wish for.
So what of Leicester?
It seems to me that, with the winning post in sight, Leicester are drawing on deep reserves of energy, that are not really available to other teams or players. Their performances represent a rare collective phenomenon, and are worth watching in that light. Their closing down, concentration, tackling and defensive agility are exceptional.
My suspicion is that they will probably find enough resources to hang on to the end of the season. This may make you happy (because they beat Tottenham) or sad (because they hold off a late charge from Arsenal). Either way, I expect them to suffer the consequences of dipping into the red zone, at the start of next season. I am not at all optimistic about their Champions League campaign in 2016/17.
Arsenal scout (and occasional Untold columnist) Danny Karbassyioon is today interviewed in the Independent…
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