Is it time to back rather than belittle struggling players?

It’s in our nature as football fans to be reactionary.

Whether it be calling for a player’s head after a indifferent run or elevating them to near-mythological status after a match-winning performance, we wear our hearts on our sleeves at all times.

In the pressure cooker of elite sport, there is seldom time for the wider view. Reputations rise and fall – and sometimes rise again – from one month to the next. We are all guilty of this kind of thinking in one way or another. Egged on by social media and its instant gratification, we are swept along on the tide of agony or ecstasy. There is seldom a middle ground.

Should we accept that is how it is, however, or should we strive for the sort of patience and calm consideration that could ultimately pay dividends?

Take Mikel Arteta, for example. Some owners would have sent him packing long before the Chelsea game and who would have argued? A single win in 10 league games was truly relegation form and, amid the mounting discontent, the easiest option would have been to cut the rookie manager loose.

And yet, here we are, barely a month after the swirling miasma of doubts and fears threatened to overwhelm Arteta and we’re in a different world. A run of four wins has transformed the mood around the club and our prospects look immediately better. Belief in ‘the process’ is, for now, restored.

And you don’t have to look deep into our own history to see that example repeated, time and again. Think about all those we have written off who, with time and patience, ultimately came good.

Aaron Ramsey was lambasted as a youngster and looked destined for the scrap heap when he was sent back on loan to Cardiff. When he finally left the club for Juventus a few summers back, we all lamented the loss. Early in his Arsenal career, the mere mention of Olivier Giroud brought a universal roll of the eyes, ditto Robin Van Persie, Matthieu Flamini, Francis Coquelin, and Wojciech Szczesny.

And how often have dips in form convinced us that a player’s worth is spent? Alex Lacazette was finished six weeks ago, now he is in the form of his Arsenal career.

Of course, there are plenty of examples we can cite of players who, despite countless opportunities, simply didn’t come good or weren’t good enough. It happens, not just to Arsenal but at all clubs. With the gift of hindsight, we might never have moved for Andre Santos, Junichi Inamoto or Igors Stepanovs, or might never have given so many opportunities to Pascal Cygan, Nicklas Bendtner or Gervinho.

The point is, these players don’t pick themselves and they don’t set out to give anything less than their best. The chance to play for a club like Arsenal is an incredible opportunity and football careers are fleeting – it would be madness to bring anything other than 100 per cent. Sometimes, though, for any number of reasons, it doesn’t work out.

Passing comment and doling out criticism is part and parcel of football, everybody knows that – from fans and journalists, right up to players and executives in the board room. But, when it’s one of our own subjected to the ire of the most vocal among the fanbase, week after week, you have to wonder whether that’s wise and, indeed, whether it’s fair.

Willian is having an awful time of it this season, nobody can deny it. He has struggled in a way that he has probably never experienced before as a player. It is, in all likelihood, just as perplexing to him as it is to us. But is his cause helped our hindered by the outright hostility of his own fans towards him?

I can’t deny that I too am culpable for giving the Brazilian short-shrift. His efforts have been underwhelming and not fit for a man as well remunerated as he is. But he doesn’t pick himself, that’s on his manager and, in turn, on the technical director. It is their judgement that will ultimately decide his fate – and the fate of any player who is underperforming. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is no exception to this rule and has been pretty underwhelming himself so far this season.

With that in mind, would our energy be better spent doing what we can to turn around the form of a struggling player? Would his confidence not be better served with messages of support instead of wholesale, relentless derision – bordering on abuse? I don’t say that it is our job to make the players perform or to improve the skills of players who aren’t up to the required level but, while they wear the red and white of north London, surely we should treat them as one of our own, until such time as they are not.

Ultimately, overcoming our own nature is tough and the high emotion of football and following a team in which you are genuinely invested can sweep the calmest of us away. Perhaps, though, it is time to rethink the approach to our own and try backing those who need it most.

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