Mentality. Grit. Resilience. Call it what you will, but it matters, and like bridges, it takes ages to build, and only moments to destroy. In sports, mentality has become just as important as tactics and training, with sports psychologists being hired by most major sports teams to help instill a winning attitude. But when a team lacks it, it can become a dangerous snowball rolling down a hill.
In the span of four days, it appears that Arsenal’s winning mentality has all but escaped them. Two consecutive road losses have exposed the Gunners mental and physical weaknesses, and they have gone from surprising top four contenders to paper tigers in the course of a week. All of the positive momentum that the club accrued before the international break has gone, and the big question that has plagued this club since the season began still rings true: can anyone score a damn goal?
The extra time loss to a dismal Everton on Monday was a particularly brutal gut check. For the second straight match, Arsenal managed to throw away a 1-0 lead, practically inviting the other team to dictate the match after scoring first. There is plenty of blame to be apportioned, but simply put, the Gunners seem to once again lack the mental and intestinal fortitude to see these matches out. After the most recent loss, Martin Odegaard was quoted in the media saying that Arsenal “were afraid to lose,” a concerning indictment on the team’s mental state.
With all of that being said, the Gunners can change their fortunes when Southampton comes to town this Saturday. The Saints are 16th and in the midst of a four match winless streak. While streaks and form mean little right now for the Gunners’ opponents, Arsenal’s home form is at the very least reassuring. In seven home matches, the Gunners boast a 5-1-1 win-draw-loss record. In contrast, Southampton’s away form is abysmal, as the Saints’ 1-2-4 record leaves plenty to be desired.
The main emphasis for this match (besides winning, obviously) has be getting the attackers into a rhythm. Arsenal currently can’t buy a goal right now, and Pierre Emerick Aubameyang’s tremendous slump is a major concern. The brunt of the goal-scoring burden has been squarely on Auba’s shoulders, fairly or not. The gap between he and the rest of the strikers on roster is painfully evident, which makes his impact all the more important. If Auba can’t get out of his head and break out of his drought and nobody else is stepping up, Arteta is going to have some major decisions to make this upcoming transfer window.
If the attack has some soul searching to do, the midfield isn’t far behind. Against Everton and Manchester United, the midfielders were routinely over-run, made poor passes, and failed to control the middle of the pitch with any regularity. To put it plainly, there isn’t a player in the midfield that is inspiring confidence right now. Thomas Partey, who has been the heartbeat of the midfield at times, has been little more than a murmur recently. Granit Xhaka is back in action, but Arteta’s decision to play him for a full 90 right after recovering from a major knee injury was baffling, bordering on gross negligence. Much like the striker position, the longer the season goes on, the more apparent it is that the Gunners desperately need a new CM this winter.
Arsenal have to get out of their current habit of being everyone’s confidence booster. United and Everton both capitalized on Arsenal’s lack of a backbone and imposed themselves with relative ease. With tomorrow’s match back at the Emirates, Arsenal will need to stop playing scared and find a way to become the aggressors once again.
Despite the necessity of rotating the roster with a congested fixture list, it seems like Arteta has opted to lean on a smaller selection of players - partially by choice and partially by necessity. While the exclusion of players like Pepe have been concerning, others make sense - Cedric, Pablo Mari, Calum Chambers, etc. But Arteta has to get his lineups and subs right if he doesn’t want to see the Gunners worn out and spiraling by Boxing Day.
For more info about the roster, check out Nathan’s predicted line-up and results post.
Southampton, meanwhile, have been struggling with fitness and injuries - six players are out currently, including both the first and second string keepers, which means they will rely on 40 year old former Chelsea backup Willy Caballero Saturday against the Gunners (incoming masterclass brick-wall performance). If Arsenal struggle against a wounded and middling Saints side, it’s going to be a tough uphill battle for the Gunners for the remainder of December.
For more insight on Southampton’s season, read Nathan’s interview with SBN Site St. Mary’s Musings.
Arsenal have not lost a Premier League home match to the Saints since the Premier League’s formation in 1992. To find the last time they won away at the Gunners in a league match, you would have to go all the way back to 1987. It would be nice to see that home unbeaten streak continue, but for that to be certain, Arsenal will need to get out of their heads and play with something that resembles a fire and a desire to win. At this stage, anything less than a win has to be unacceptable for the manager and the players.
WHAT: Arsenal vs Southampton
WHEN: Saturday, December 12th, 10:00am EST/6:00am PST/3:00pm GMT
WHERE: The Emirates Stadium, London
HOW TO WATCH: Live on NBC Sports and streaming on NBCSports.com
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