Arsenal, Leicester & the much-fabled ‘Mental Strength.’

Originally published in the Gooner fanzine – pick yours up outside the Emirates on matchday.

Leicester City’s fairytale lifting of the Premiership crown is well documented – and for good reason.

The season prior to this miraculous feat saw the same side escape the maw of relegation only by a late Herculean effort. 

To then transform themselves into a title-winning team indicates that it was down to belief and the fiercest of winning mentalities. 

This season has seen that burning desire which fuelled their glory run extinguished, and the men who performed well above their station have since returned to their natural level.

These are the same players, and yet the champions are stark in their contrast to the previous year. How can eleven men appear to be unbeatable on the pitch, and then revert back to type in such a short space of time?

It can only be their mentality which changed them. 

Three losses from thirty eight games. Jamie Vardy bagging twenty four goals, and Riyad Mahrez grabbing seventeen. A Stoke City reject and a journeyman from the lower leagues comprising an unbreakable central defensive partnership.

Where did these players summon this superhuman feat from? Their rise from abject, to sublime and then back to abject again, is a tale of motivation and of mental strength in the face of adversity. 

There were mitigating factors of course. No fixture congestion, no European commitments and they escaped unscathed in terms of injury to key personnel. 

A 38-game season does not lie though. All the top teams had ample opportunity to overcome the Foxes. They just couldn’t rise to the occasion and were bested.

On paper, Arsenal’s team is head and shoulders above the current champions. From goalkeeper to attack, we have the edge in terms of talent. So why did Leicester lift the title and not us?

Is Kasper Schmeichel a better goalkeeper than Petr Cech? Of course not, but what helped the Dane repel attack after attack was the proverbial wind beneath his wings. He believed that the team he played for could achieve something. He and his teammates believed it so much, they were unwilling to budge in the face of adversity and even reality. 

Take the story of Danny Drinkwater. The English midfielder was sent on loan to the likes of Huddersfield and Barnsley whilst on the books at Manchester United. He failed to make the grade and Championship side Leicester snapped him up. His performances alongside N’Golo Kante were a revelation in 2015-16 and he earned international recognition thanks to his displays. 

In essence though, he is a workhorse and nothing more. He was buoyed by those around him and his above-average stamina saw him run around every blade of grass to great effect. Does he deserve to stand above Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere? Not in terms of talent, but with his Premier League medal he can always say he is a champion. Ramsey and Jack cannot.

The missing ingredient which the Gunners have sorely lacked is that determination and belief. When Ranieri’s men went a goal down, there were no slumped shoulders or disconcerted gesticulating. They continued with a formulaic gameplan which played to their strengths and most fundamentally of all – they never gave up. 

They believed that they would get something from every game. 

We have seen, in our losses to Chelsea and Bayern especially, the winning spirit sap visibly from our players when a setback occurs. Is it due to the lack of a vociferous leader on the pitch? Is it a lack of effort? All of these assets were in Leicester’s team.

Whose job is it to instill this mental framework into the players? Is it down to Wenger? He has trotted out the ‘mentally jaded’ phrase so many times after disappointment, that it leaves you wondering what the players are doing in their downtime. Is it a day crammed with super-tough sudoku?

Surely the players must step up to the precipice and be counted? Wenger has numerous failings, but once his charges cross the white line on the turf, there is little much else he can do to change events. The players need the hunger for success. They cannot be allowed to be sated by currency and an assured position in the team. If they are, then they either need a firm reminder or be shown the exit door. 

Leicester’s fire in their bellies has gone, and they now sit in an eerily similar position to before they became champions. 

Arsenal without the spirit and drive will always come up short when challenges require it. 

Talent is useless without it. 

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