Arsenal are different now than they were 10-15 years ago. This is not just about results; Arsene’s predilection for intelligent players means that there is, for better or worse, less steel/grit/pashun/pick your descriptor in the current iteration of Arsenal than there was back in the early days of Wenger’s time at the club.
I am the first to say that most of the time, intangibles don’t matter, or if they matter they’re not measurable and thus not worth a whole lot of discussion. I mean, look at the amount of times people say “(player) looks like he doesn’t care” or “(player) looks like he’s given up)” or some similar condemnation.
It’s patently ridiculous for us as outside observers, from the consumer end of a TV screen, to say things like that, because we have literally no clue what is going on inside a player’s head. We don’t know whether they care or not. We’re just projecting our frustrations over another bad performance onto an avatar in a red and white shirt, no matter what the person in that shirt is actually doing.
But the words of Per Mertesacker are a bit different. When he was asked about the state of the squad recently, he had this to say:
“We saw on a lot of occasions that we were absolutely not ready for a fight, and that’s what I want to see – that we are up for a fight, to challenge something”
Which is a fairly brutal piece of honesty from a member of the team. He’s not saying that they don’t care; he’s saying that they’re not ready to push that little bit beyond their playing comfort zones in order to achieve their objectives.
Don’t misunderstand - I’m not pining for the days when players would just bulldoze their opponents on the pitch, with no regard for tactics or game state or anything. But I, and a lot of other people, have long wished for that little bit of edge to return to Arsenal’s game, because without it, they play, in the words of Arsene, “a little bit with the handbrake”.
Sol Campbell, old guard extraordinaire, agrees with this. When asked the same questions about the state of Arsenal, he talked specifically about training, and about how things would occasionally get a little...heated:
“It would boil over, properly boil over, at the training ground from time to time. But that’s normal. You can’t just have it all-singing all-dancing, tickety-boo. That’s not going to work. You need to find out who is around you.”
Again: I’m not arguing that players should kick their teammates in the face in training for the sake of it, John Hartson style, or that someone clock a teammate in the back of the head like Joey Barton. What I am saying is that Arsenal needs that channeled sort of aggression in the team, where they are literally willing to fight for each other, and that’s what seems to be missing - that mentality that says “You’re on my team, I got your back, no matter what”.
A team full of technical experts is an amazing thing to have - when it’s working. When it’s not, though, there has to be some outlet for that, and Arsenal lack that at the moment. If reports are to be believed, not only did Alexis go off on his teammates, but when he did, his teammates didn’t like it.
Guess what? You’re not supposed to like it. It’s criticism. Stand up to it, push back against it, and you’ll be able to take that mentality out on to the pitch and push back when it matters most.
Arsene Wenger has always valued the collective over the individual. Worryingly, though, he seems to think that the individual can fit in to the collective as is:
“You have to accept that a team is made up of 25 different personalities. So I don’t want people to change. I just want them on board to achieve something together.”
The issue with that is that if you don’t want individuals to change to fit the collective, you find individuals that you feel will augment the existing collective. This becomes a self-perpetuating cycle where you bring in players that don’t push, that don’t rebel, and that stay within themselves even when the situation screams that they lash out against it.
Arsenal had that in spades in Ye Olden Days - really, it wasn’t even that long ago. Gilberto, Petit, Campbell, etc were all guys who would be unafraid to call players out, teammates or opponents, and challenge them to stand up for themselves. At Current Day Arsenal, it’s telling that when a player does that, the default reaction is “WHY IS HE BEING SUCH A PETULANT BABY” and not “hey maybe he has a point” (from the fans) or “COME SAY THAT TO MY FACE” (from the players).
It’s that whole “you gotta break a few eggs to make an omelet” cliche - if Arsenal want to push forward as a team, sometimes they gotta push back.