By Tony Attwood
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After the Manchester City match Thierry Henry commenting on TV, put it at the time, “You can’t be too emotional about it. You can feel the emotion coming, but don’t be emotional. You can feel it — but don’t become it.”
It was something that Thierry himself managed excellently most of the time – the moment could be overwhelmingly emotional but time and again we saw him keep his cool, to great effect. And that was something that Arsenal managed to do in the game against Manchester City. They played it cool despite the City attacks and despite the demands of the crowd. It was a game changer then, and quite possibly a season changer too.
It is an enormously difficult thing to do of course because football is emotional and unpredictable, which of course is why it is popular. But the players and Mikel Arteta (who seems these days to be a constant 12th and 13th man in, and sometimes out, of his technical area) are managing that unpredictability by sticking to their task, believing in themselves and believing in the messages from the manager.
Indeed Arteta seems to be managing every moment of the game, and much of that is traditional direction, but he is also managing the players’ adrenaline level, their focus, their belief in the process, and perhaps most amazingly, their self-belief. The psychologist’s team working in the background needs an award of their own: Team Psychologists of the Season.
As Arteta said after the game, recognising the disconnect between the crowd in the first half of the Manchester City game and what the players were instructed to do, the crowd “want you to go and go and go… then we don’t go and the crowd react. We have to manage that. Emotionally, it’s not easy to chase 15 or 20 passes, but you need to be able to do that. Then you need to have the courage to play, because with [Manchester City], you can’t just give the ball to them every single time. The players were excellent.”
Hence the David Raya kicks were extended and delayed – but stayed within the referee’s limitations. We don’t like it when opposition keepers slow the game down, and City did not like what Arsenal did, but it is part of the game, and in the City match it helped work the situation.
And there is also the fact that Arsenal now seem to be perfecting the way to use substitutions – indeed one couldn’t help notice that all the subs were a part of the goal. That was of course an Arteta moment, bringing on four subs, but behind the scenes a team of psychologists had been working on the players. Those psychologists won’t ever get the limelight, and if Arsenal play against another team in the way they played against Manchester City, the crowd will get angry again. But now we know that the players will be ready for that and will handle it.
Additionally, Arsenal can also benefit from the fact that in football there is always churn. Although the tendency is to predict that this season will end up the same as the last in terms of the top teams (remembering that last season virtually all the pundits expected the top four to be the same as the season before) it doesn’t always work like that.
Last season the top five were (as of course you will remember), Manchester City, Arsenal, Manchester United, Newcastle United and Liverpool.
But in 2021/22 Tottenham and Chelsea were also in the top five, but then dropped out in 2022/23. Tottenham are now top of the league, Chelsea are 11th.
2020/21 contained Leicester and Manchester United in the top five, and both those clubs who then dropped out for 2021/22. Leicester are now in the Championship, Man U are 10th – and that was only two and a bit seasons ago!
Of course this level of change doesn’t always happen. 2019/20 contained the same five clubs as 2020/21, but one or two clubs moving up from outside the top five one season, into the top five next season is the norm. Stagnation in terms of the same teams in the top five year two years running happens, but is not that common, even though most pundits suggest it is.
At the start of the season all the pundits whose predictions I read for this season had Mancheseter City at the top, and Arsenal second, just as last season. As far as I can recall, and you might be able to prove me wrong on this one, the last time the same two teams ended up first and second two seasons running was in 2012 and 2013, except across those two seasons the teams reversed positions. In 2012 Manchester City were top and Manchester United second. (That also happened across 2010 and 2011 with Chelsea and Manchester United).
But the last time the same two teams came first and second was, I think in 2007 and 2008 when Mancheseter United and Chelsea did it.
And that thought is rather cheering. No matter what the dominance, the Premier League ending up with the same top two (let alone the same top four) is very rare. Those two clubs are, as noted, 10th and 11th at the moment).
As for the same two being at the top three seasons running, and in the same positions, that last happened in 1999, 2000 and 2001, and you’ll probably remember that if you were watching football at that time. It was Manchester United and Arsenal.
Actually, I am rather glad it doesn’t happen that often. We really don’t want to end up like the Scottish League.
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