English clubs · English league · Football managers

Mind Over Matter

Manchester United visits Arsenal today. Unlike in several previous clashes in recent years, there has been little or no pre-match mind games between Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger. The focus today will be on the quality of players and team formations of the clubs lying first and second in the Premier League.

In the mind game stakes of the recent past, Arsenal has often come out second best, including, perhaps most famously, United’s 2-0 win over Arsenal on 24 October 2004, which ended Arsenal’s record 49 game unbeaten streak in the Premier League.

Player for player, there is not much to chose between Arsenal and Manchester United. While United’s style may be more direct, with players such as Ronaldo and Nani prepared to take on and get past opposing players, on their day, Arsenal move the ball around the pitch with a swagger that is unmatched in the Premier League, and perhaps all of Europe.

A football team is more than the sum of the talents of its 11 players on the pitch. Teamwork and tactics are of equal or greater importance. Being able to find space on the pitch quickly and effectively and to move the ball around rapidly and accurately when in possession, and closing down space and opponents when not in possession decide outcome of matches as much as the individual skills of the players on the field.

Since he was first appointed by Arsenal in September 1996, Wenger’s teams have often been unsurpassed in the Premier League in terms of their movement and passing. There is no doubt that Wenger is an excellent coach, perhaps the best in the Premier League.

Yet in the 11 seasons since Wenger was first appointed, Arsenal has only won the title 3 times, compared to 6 for Manchester United (which Chelsea winning the title on the remaining 2 occasions).

Perhaps even more important than the quality of players and of play is the mental strength of the man in charge. Here, there is no one stronger than Ferguson. It is 21 years now since he was first appointed manager at Manchester United on 6 November 1986, making him by far the longest serving manager in England.

His first few seasons in charge were difficult, and there were even rumblings that he might be sacked in 1989-90, before he won his first trophy with Manchester United that season – the FA Cup. His position only really became secure when in 1993, United ended its 26 year wait for a title. Overcoming the difficulties of his first few seasons in England could only have served to strengthen him. Not that Ferguson ever lacked strength of character – his reputation as a strict disciplinarian dates back to his time in charge of Aberdeen in Scotland.

Like anyone who is successful, Ferguson has played to his strengths. It is no wonder that he has taken on his rivals in mind games, most famously against Kevin Keegan in the 1995-96 season. On the other hand, his mental battles with Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho have been more evenly matched.

The manager’s strength of mind and character can make all the difference. Bolton Wanderers are nowhere near the side they were without Sam Allardyce as they were under his management, even with largely the same players. For all his abilities as a coach, Martin Jol lacked that degree of inner strength to take Tottenham up to the next level. Jose Mourinho was too strong and independent-minded for Roman Abramovich’s liking, and had to go.

The mental aspect of the game is still more an art than a science in the English Premier League. Reliance on sports psychologists is still a relatively novel idea. Would a player really perform better if a psychologist worked on his focus and motivation? Could a psychologist enhance a team’s cohesiveness?

Football is still more about passion than science. Personal feuds and various forms of overreacting, from feigning injury to retaliating, may be distracting side shows, but would in any event be difficult to eliminate from the game.

Many of the more abrasive characters from past United-Arsenal clashes have gone, Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira to name but two.

Both clubs are also without their leading goalscorers of recent years, Ruud Van Nistelrooy having left for Real Madrid in July 2006, and Theirry Henry moving to Barcelona in June 2007. Both clubs appear more balanced without these players.

Henry also had a tendency to allow his head to drop whenever the side suffered a setback. Given his talismanic status at the club, any such sense of dejection easily affected the morale of the entire team. Arsenal is better off without Henry.

A winning mindset requires the ability to overcome setbacks – a positive determination and a never-say-die attitude. Over the years, Manchester United has shown this quality more often than have Arsenal, most famously in the Champions League Final of 1999. It is often said that to win titles, a team must be able to grind out results even when not playing well.

Both United and Arsenal are currently playing well and scoring lots of goals. There is little to choose between them in terms of playing ability. Both clubs are capable of producing a spectacle without the bad blood and heated exchanges of past encounters. There appears to be a level-headedness about both sides. Even Wayne Rooney has been controlling his temper this season.

That is not to say that the psychological aspect will be absent from the game. When two teams are so evenly matched, the winner will be the side that is mentally stronger on the day.

(This article as appeared in the Weekend Today on 3 November 2007)


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