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Arsenal lack skill, not desire

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Being a human is hard. So, it turns out, is the Premier League.

Watford v Arsenal - Premier League Photo by Stephen Pond/Getty Images

One of the things about growing and getting older is that, through accumulation, things start to feel very stale. The psychology of this gets tricky, because although we’ve heard Arsène Wenger say this a lot, as he did yesterday:

Our level dropped.

our brains can often exaggerate how often something bad has happened in the past. We remember the few 1-0 home defeats against Fulham more than the many 2-0 wins away against QPR. And we begin to run out of things to say when the bad things happen, because what’s the point, nothing will change until VENGA OUT, he’s lost the team. It gets harder to care as we all get older, and we begin to see shadows of the same mental state in the players through our televisions:

Notice how Xhaka lacks passion and desire. Notice how he doesn’t care. Notice how—

Wait. Stop.

Projection is a hell of a drug. As someone with low self-esteem and social anxiety, I feel the cliché is actually pretty apt here—it’s much easier to see qualities that I don’t like in myself coming through in others than it is to face them in myself. This is normal. This is a human response.

Our lives accumulate, we find less and less time to devote to any given thing, the doors close on different possible rooms. This is the plot of a thousand films. As we feel that time we can devote to Arsenal lessens, we get more easily frustrated with players whose devotion to the club lessens the same way in our minds. We watch a match unfold how yesterday’s did, and in our heightened emotional state, we make inflamed judgments about players’ characters rather than their skills. It’s not fair, but we do it because in that moment, it’s easier to dismiss them as lacking in desire than it is to admit that they’re actually not very good (especially when we shell out the GDP of a small nation to get them).

Granit Xhaka is a man whose life and upbringing was not simple. My life and upbringing contained none of the hardship his has, and I can’t imagine the drive a person must have to get to where he is today. [He also seems like a nice man.] In the sober light of the day after, declaring that he lacks desire to win feels like a harsh judgment of his character in comparison to saying he lacks anticipation or positioning, which are skills, real skills with an actual impact on the events above.

I’m not suggesting that players’ mental states and confidence, and the mood in the dressing room, have no effects on outcomes. They absolutely do. What I am suggesting is that drawing conclusions about the character of a person through televised events as opposed to drawing conclusions about their abilities through televised events is a cruel dulling of Occam’s Razor. Why assert they lack passion rather than skill?

It hurts less, is why. It’s more gratifying, not to mention self-inflating, for me to put Granit/Mesut/Nicolas/Nicklas down (thereby raising my own feelings about myself and my passion for Arsenal) than it is to admit that Arsenal may have vastly overpaid for a player lacking in crucial mental skills, that Arsenal, respective to the amount of money they have, are, in fact, “little bit shit.”

It is also tempting to ask “where are the leaders—why is nobody clapping, geeing these players up, encouraging them?” The effects of this probably are more optics than anything. This is debatable, and there is more on this forthcoming (but comment away, please!), but if the players were prepared or skilled enough before they went out, they wouldn’t need geeing up. Chelsea have those leaders, and they have the same amount of points as Arsenal. Brighton players clap and shout, and they will be in the Championship next season.

Could it provide a little edge at the time? Maybe. But people in other high-pressure professions under scrutiny don’t require geeing up to accomplish their goals—Daniel Barenboim can simultaneously conduct the orchestra and perform Beethoven’s fifth piano concerto, a work of staggering beauty and technical demands, but he needs no encouragement during the performance, although the pressure is intense. He’s prepared and skilled.

Arsenal don’t lack for desire or passion, but they lack mental skills. The two are not the same, but dismissing the former is an understandable human reaction. The spirit is willing...