Any successful football team requires a variety of traits in their players. They must be technically and tactically astute, have pace, power and stamina. A solid defence must be complemented by a potent attack. Arsenal are blessed with players who have these qualities and many more, such as an ability of using both feet, good in the air and strong in the tackle. The club has a healthy blend of youth and experience. Still, following another poor week of results, away at Liverpool and at home against Bayern Munich, there’s something missing. Character and leadership.
Elite footballers must possess mental fortitude. So many incredibly talented players do not make the grade as they do not have the ingrained determination to succeed. Physical ability alone is not enough. In both ties against Bayern, in Munich and London, Arsenal lost their captain, Laurent Koscielny, and in both ties the subsequent collapse was spectacular.
Football, like real life, often doesn’t go to plan. Injuries and poor refereeing decisions are a frustrating part of the game. The ability to react to adversity is the test of character. Over both legs against Bayern Munich, it was a test Arsenal’s players failed miserably. Captain Koscielny was on the pitch for a total of 103 minutes and off it for 85 minutes. With him on the pitch, the aggregate score was 2-1 to the Gunners. Without him on the pitch, the aggregate score was 9-0 to the German champions!
Koscielny is undoubtedly a good footballer but it was his presence and leadership that were so sorely missed, not his ability. Without him there was a vacuum of power. The remaining players had a choice between stepping up or shying away; the vast majority chose the latter. Instead of a bulldog British, all-in-the-trenches together attitude, that demanded the rest of the players come together as a team and fight for their pride, panic quickly spread amongst the ranks. A resigned, roll-over-and die spirit, seized most of the players who lacked the character to stick their shoulders back, chests out and take responsibility.
British teams have traditionally been accused of falling below the technical standards of their continental counterparts. This shortcoming was set against a stereotypically hard-working team, ready to chase lost causes and fight for every ball. Thus giving the British teams a weapon in their armoury, over their opponents and a sporting chance of victory.
Munich are a technically superior team to Arsenal. For the Gunners to have had any chance of success they had to try another approach and rattle the Bavarians. The likelihood of victory, especially in the first leg, slid from improbable to virtually impossible as the team were not mentally prepared to battle. The second leg started promisingly (possibly the players played with more freedom as the tie was almost beyond salvaging) but the moment contentious decisions went against Arsenal the players faded and promptly raised the white flag.
Yes, Koscielny was unfortunate to get injured in the first game. Yes, Arsenal should have had a penalty when Walcott was tripped during the first half at the Emirates. Yes, Robert Lewandowski was offside in the build-up to the penalty awarded to Munich. Yes, Koscielny’s yellow card being upgraded to red was very harsh. Yes, the rub of the green and the decisions went against Arsenal. No, these are not good enough excuses for the players not to have rolled up their sleeves and given their all.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is one of the few players to come out of the tie with credit. He worked tirelessly when both with and without the ball. He looked like he wanted to be there, in the middle of the scrap. Most of the other players looked like they wanted to be anywhere else.
When a team has their backs to the walls, some players lead by example and drag their teammates with them. Other players glean inspiration from their mentally tougher teammates. Shkodran Mustafi looks to be in the second category. When following others, he appears a classy defender but when expected to lead, he resembles an accident waiting to happen. Mesut Ozil is another who falls into this category. Both players excel when surrounded by good, in-form players and both have a tendency to moan and point fingers when the odds are against them and a positive reaction is needed.
Alexis Sanchez does lead by example. Unfortunately, his teammates cannot match his standards. His recent body language suggests this frustration has morphed into apathy. A real leader, a Tony Adams character, would have cajoled the rest of the team months ago, to follow Sanchez’s lead and work harder. If this had been the case then standards would have been higher, results better and in all probability Sanchez would look like he did still care, as there was still something worth fighting for.
The lack of character evident throughout the team is something the players should be ashamed of. Every team occasionally runs into an opponent who are top of their form and get played off the pitch. At times like this, praise is given to the victors and comfort taken from the knowledge that they’d tried their best. Arsenal’s players did not give their all and can take no solace.
Character, like so many other aspects of football, requires an innate ability but it can be honed. To make it to this stage in their careers, every player who pulls on an Arsenal shirt has fought off thousands of rivals. This takes determination and character. The current crop of players may not have the huge personalities of former players like Patrick Vieira or Thierry Henry, but to have made it so far they must possess a steely inner core.
The fact that these personalities appear to be stymied instead of fostered is holding the club back. Like so many of Arsenal’s current problems, this issue must lead back to the manager. When Chelsea, under Jose Mourinho, felt they weren’t getting the rub of the green and the world was against them, they came together as a club. A siege mentality was created and battling performances ensued. Arsenal do not possess men of the calibre of John Terry and Frank Lampard, instead a victim mentality hangs in the air at the Emirates.
While the manager must take some responsibility for the players’ attitude; they take their lead from him. The players must also take a long hard look at themselves. They are not juniors, they are men. They must stand up for themselves and their teammates and fight like men. Maybe a fresh manager would galvanise a clearly talented crop of players to play with more personality. Or, maybe a new manager would have less patience with underperforming players.
Either way, the players are playing for their futures. That’s a real test of character.