By Tony Attwood
It is often said, both in football and in other areas of life, that the time senior management really earn their money is when things go wrong. Planning for the future when things are going right is less difficult because at such moments top management has time to consider, discuss, and evolve ideas.
But in a crisis there is a demand for immediate action, and the temptation to take a gamble, not because the management thinks it will work but because there is a feeling all round that doing something is always better than doing nothing.
Sadly, although doing something can be good, in my experience in management (although self-evidently not football management) doing something for the sake of doing something can often make things worse. Also my experience is that a change of management will more often than not, fail to bring a change in performance.
In player transfer terms there is probably not much that can be done for any club today that has not already been planned and considered. Arsenal will complete such deals as they have prepared today, unless something suddenly changes. If a medical report comes in with a warning, if a player, an agent or a club suddenly tries to up its demands at the last minute in the belief that “they will have to agree as there is no time left” then things can come off the rails. But otherwise we pretty much know what will happen. Chelsea might try and buy Mahrez today, but that would be one hell of a rush, unless all the contract preliminaries have already been done behind the scenes.
But I am not too sure that the big signing roundabout that is predicted for today is the key issue that will make Arsenal’s fortunes on the pitch change. What is really needed at the moment is a psychological shift when it comes to away games. A recovery in the self-belief of the team that on a grotty pitch away from home against a bottom of the table club that is having a revival, Arsenal can see out a win.
So how does one change the self-belief of a bunch of multi-millionaires?
It is quite a psychological challenge, and I haven’t read a serious paper on the subject in any scientific journal – probably because no one has been able to do the research. But what might such a paper show us?
A team with a poor record in some aspect of its game (as for example Arsenal playing in away matches) faces a number of difficulties. First, the natural game of the players goes as they start to worry more about not doing things wrong, rather than letting their natural talent shine through in the expectation that they will do things right enough of the time for the fans not to get on their backs.
Second, the members of the team become nervous about each other’s performance, and again this detracts from their own ability, which is much of the time based on the belief that they simply get it right.
Third, there is the input of those around them: the manager has to know when to get angry, when to be sympathetic.
Then there are the factors completely beyond the control of the individual players and the club: the reaction of the fans at the match, the comments of fans after the match, and the reaction of the media. Anyone who has never been involved in putting him/herself in front of the public through a performance or offering something in the field of the arts and entertainment, can’t really know just how difficult it can be to cope with the negative reaction. Some do just continue as if nothing has happened, but most either shy away or try to hard – and both reactions generally make matters worse.
To perform at the highest level the footballer, rather like the actor or the musician, needs to be able to combine a heightened sense of the moment when performing, as well as being able to relax enough to give that performance. It is the same no matter if one is playing the piano, writing, acting or playing football: if you are too hyped up or too worried about making a mistake , the results can be worse than if one is not hyped up enough.
That’s where, in football terms, the media and supporters can make matters much more difficult through criticising the team and individual players.
The return argument is that when things have gone wrong the players and management deserve criticism. That is an moral value – that a person who gets things wrong must be criticised because… well because that seems only right and fair and proper. It is a common moral view. But it doesn’t have anything to do with making things better which has nothing to do with what feels or seems right.
Pulling a group of players back from poor performances (in our case poor performances away from home) is a complex and difficult task involving the psychology of each individual and the social psychology of the group. What makes it harder is that it has to go on against the background of more and more criticism which can slow down the recovery rate both of the individuals and the team.
The reason for the new manager bounce can be found in this – players stop worrying because the new man comes in and says, “forget all that has gone before, we’re all in this together now, I don’t know anything about your past… let’s make this work.”
The reason that the new manager bounce so often comes to an end is because when things go wrong either by chance or by poor planning or simply because the players were not good enough then there is nothing else to fall back on. There was only the new manager bounce.
None of this is to say “it is not the player’s fault.” But most researchers accept that high performance in any field of work is only partly down to talent. It is also largely down to the psychology of the performer, and many performers (including footballers) who fail to reach the heights that they could get to, do so because they have not been helped to understand and master the psychological elements of their performance.
Group Performance is a complicated concept, and the simplistic answers to the improvement of group performance (such as get rid of the manager, or get rid of this player) can work on occasion. But I suspect most of them fail over the longer term.
- Swansea – Arsenal 3-1: the story of Jekyll and Hyde
- From the Arsenal History Society: 1919: The first Christmas for the new expanded league
- Beyond any doubt Infantino is getting his way. Next: Fifa will leave Zurich
- World Cup chaos: the bits you may have missed
- Fifa establish their unchallengable right to change football rules as they go
- Extraordinary report claims Arsenals’ FA Cup win was not a major trophy!
- 2022/23 Women’s Champions League Juventus v Arsenal – match preview