It's all in the mind for gifted but flawed Arsenal
'What's the deal with Arsene Wenger throwing a bottle when Arsenal don't have any?'
The humorists had a field day after the Gunners' second-half collapse last weekend saw their normally restrained manager smash a water container on the Emirates Stadium sidelines. Tottenham Hotspur had scored a late winner to overturn a 2-0 deficit and record their first away league victory in the north London derby in 17 years.
And the Frenchman's mood hardly improved ahead of today's difficult trip to Aston Villa when his team leaked goals in the 83rd and 90th minutes to lose 2-0 at Portugal's Braga in the Champions League on Tuesday night. Their second consecutive road defeat leaves Arsenal's hopes of qualifying for the knockout stage for the 12th successive year in the balance.
This season, more than half the goals the north London club have conceded have come in the last 15 matches of games, both domestically and in Europe.
The feeling is this brilliant yet flawed squad will be 'nearly men' once again. As easy on the eye and as technically gifted the players are, they remain a soft touch, prone to intimidation and inexplicable meltdowns.
The surrender to arch-rivals Spurs - with the third and decisive goal coming in the 85th minute from Younes Kaboul - revived memories of an even direr disintegration when they conceded three times in the final 11 minutes to be beaten 3-2 at lowly Wigan on April 18. It killed off their title aspirations as they finished their campaign with just one victory in five matches.
Arsenal's increasing tendency to self-destruct goes beyond the squad's lack of concentration, failure to follow Wenger's instructions and their relative inexperience when it comes to winning significant silverware. According to one Asia-based sports' science and performance expert, the Gunners' deficiencies may simply lie within their heads. 'There seems to be a mental frailty with Arsenal and a lack of leaders to take control of the situation on the field when things start to go wrong,' says Singapore-based John Limna, who's worked with elite athletes, including the British Olympic Association, for two decades. 'They don't always seem to be able to make good decisions at vital times.'
Limna, who has a postgraduate degree in sports psychology and is also a life-long Arsenal fan, also says there are no instant solutions to a major trophy drought that has stretched more than 51/2 years.
'There is no quick fix - mental strength, learning how to deal with situations you face is built up over a period of time,' he says. 'But a number of Premier League clubs already have extensive mind-training programmes and I believe having a 'mind room' would be worthwhile for Arsenal.'
This week Wenger revealed he is not using a sports psychologist on his players, but trying instead to ram home a simple message: to concentrate on the task at hand rather than what is at stake. In Formula One racing terms, that means focusing on the final bends and curves instead of looking for the finish line. But on the evidence of their past two matches, the penny has still not dropped.
In recent seasons, Arsenal's raw youth has been blamed for a lack of killer instinct. Yet, of the squad who featured in last weekend's surrender to Spurs, nine players were aged 25 or older. And with captain and talisman Cesc Fabregas tipped to join Barcelona next season, time could be running out for a golden generation of players.
The long-term absence of last season's outstanding centre-back Thomas Vermaelen has hit Arsenal hard and exposed them at crucial times. When Kaboul rose high for the go-ahead goal last Saturday from Rafael van der Vaart's free kick, the giant Frenchman easily shrugged off the marking of Fabregas and Robin van Persie, players not normally known for their defensive qualities.
Ironically, three of the stalwarts from Arsenal's so-called Invincibles - the champion team of the 2003-04 season - were wearing the colours of three different Premier League clubs during the Gunners' weekend of woe. Patrick Vieira, 34, was an 82nd minute substitute for Manchester City at Fulham, 36-year-old Sol Campbell came on after 77 minutes for Newcastle at Bolton, while 37-year-old Robert Pires made his Aston Villa debut off-the-bench at Blackburn, playing more than 20 minutes. While their best days are clearly behind them, the well-travelled trio represent the kind of leaders which the class of 2010-11 clearly lack. In 2003-04, the Gunners found a way to avoid defeat in 38 games. This season, they have lost four of 14 matches, including three at home: two of them to newly promoted sides.
'Even with such a run of erratic results, there's no need to press the panic button because they're still third and competing for everything,' Limna said. 'From a performance viewpoint, it's important the manager gets them to focus on the positives rather than the negatives because they're about to enter the most crucial part of the season.'
Another trophyless campaign - their sixth in a row - would surely make the underachieving Arsenal the butt of yet more sarcastic jokes.
'Arsenal are recalling all their crockery sets sold recently because they were incomplete. They didn't have any CUPS with them.'