After Conor McGregor’s one-sided demolition of Eddie Alvarez in the UFC a few weeks back, the Irishman’s coach, John Kavanagh, spoke about the key difference between a champion and a contender.
(The video is at the bottom of this piece)
Kavanagh spoke eloquently about the ability McGregor has to perform as well as he does in the training gym when he steps into the UFC octagon.
He is able, when the pressure is at its greatest, to perform at his maximum without the occasion getting to him. Conversely, and by his own admission, Alvarez “blew it” – he spent 10 weeks in the gym coming up with a game plan and scarcely five minutes in the cage forgetting every last piece of it. The bright lights and huge crowd made him crumble.
This analogy is the perfect fit for Arsenal’s performance at Old Trafford yesterday. When the bright lights came on and the crowd started to roar, Arsenal crumbled and retreated into their shells, reverting to a sort of autopilot and doing none of the things they must surely have talked about in the days leading up to the match. And it’s not the first time this has happened.
Time and again on the big occasion, and especially away from home, Arsenal have been paralysed by fear. Yesterday was no different.
This was a Manchester United side struggling in a number of ways, but primarily because of a number of key personnel being absent. As many people have said, the United team yesterday was one of the worst of the last 20 years.
There are no two ways about it, they were there to be beaten.
But instead of taking the game to United, we were ponderous, unwilling and, at times, petrified of making mistakes. Our passing was timid, often inaccurate, and usually regressive. It wasn’t like us at all.
When we hosted Chelsea at the Emirates a few months back, we were the antithesis of the side that turned out yesterday. We were dynamic, we were relentless, we were unstoppable. None of that was evident at Old Trafford.
I think, in part, that was influenced by the team selection. It has become apparent that, when we pair Mohamed Elneny and Francis Coquelin together, it severely limits us as an attacking force. The pair of them, while defensively sound, lack the guile or ambition of Granit Xhaka or Santi Cazorla.
Add to that the pensive play of Carl Jenkinson, who rarely crossed the half-way line for fear of being caught out of position, or the addition of Aaron Ramsey on the left wing, which rendered him almost entirely impotent, and you have a recipe for trouble.
Most people could see Arsenal were having trouble getting the ball forward quickly and getting support into a frustratingly isolated Alexis Sanchez up top. The players must also have been able to see it and that’s when the fear started to grip.
Instead of moving for eachother and making runs, switching positions and searching for overlaps, Arsenal were increasingly playing back and square. As United pressed higher and higher, so we started to retreat deeper and deeper until the ball was being cleared into space and coming straight back at us.
Eventually, as we could all see it would, the pressure told and United scored. At this point, I genuinely feared that the hosts could go on to get two or three goals. That’s not to say they were scintillating in attack, because they were pretty average, I was more concerned that Arsenal, already mentally fragile, would simply fold in on themselves.
As it was, United decided to take their foot off the gas. Instead of committing to scoring a second, they allowed Arsenal more of the ball and stepped off the press. Granted we only really took advantage of that once in the match but, when we finally did, it ended in a glorious equaliser.
And that’s the most frustrating thing about the result and the performance. When we finally threw off the shackles, when we showed some endeavour and ambition, it resulted in us cutting apart a very average, under-strength United defence. They were nowhere to be seen as Olivier Giroud did what he does best.
So you see now how pertinent the UFC analogy is. If you can replicate what you do in training, if you can deliver your strategy and execute your game plan as you have practised, you are much better placed to achieve success.
If, as Arsenal did, you let the occasion and the bad memories of Old Trafford overcome you, the result is a stifled, nervous, ineffectual performance like the one we saw yesterday.
Fortunately, United were unable to deliver the knockout blow.
I don’t know how Arsene will overcome the fear that seems to envelop the squad ahead of big match days. I think a more positive team selection will certainly help, but more work needs doing, perhaps even with a sports psychologist.
The squad must overcome the fear of the big stage. They are well capable of replicating the things they do in training onto the pitch. We have seen flashes of it this season, now we have to see it consistently.
If we want to be champions, and not perennial contenders, we have to rid ourselves of our fear.