A day before the Carling Cup final, an Arsenal fan told me that Arsenal had requested permission for Cesc Fabregas to lift the Carling Cup trophy if Arsenal were to win at Wembley. The conversation turned to the merits of Carling Cup success vs the damage a defeat would have, and both of us reached the same conclusion: Arsenal not winning the Premier League title this season would be a much bigger blow than losing the Carling Cup final.
Of course, things are relative. The knock-on effect of losing to Birmingham / injuries suffered in the build-up and during the game could lead Arsenal to blow their title charge. The renewed focus on ‘winning silverware’ could cause Arsenal to fight harder for the FA Cup, another campaign that would take their eye away from the big two prizes – Champions League and Premier League.
But that’s in the future, and this is not a predictive piece (you can read my title predictions here). What matters right now is the Carling Cup final, and what Arsenal can learn from it.
Birmingham simply played better than Arsenal
First off, Arsenal are many things but they are not chokers. It’s an important distinction to make, because it’s equally easy to lap up the accepted ‘wisdom’ that Arsenal are ‘mentally weak’ and use that flawed argument to justify everything else. Arsenal on Sunday night were average, perhaps nervous with the pressure of being favourites, perhaps complacent at key junctures of the match thinking they had the upper hand. As would be expected, they had more shots on target than Birmingham but were also the beneficiaries of refereeing errors that kept them in the game early on.
They need to learn how to keep their nerves a la United (2007 to 2009) and Chelsea (2004/2005), but more than that, they need to put this performance in the right perspective. This wasn’t a case of Arsenal being outplayed or muscled off the park. This was an Arsenal side that lost despite dominating in the latter half of the game. An Arsenal side that lost to a stupid mistake that comes when you play young inexperienced kids.
Secondly, Arsenal know that they still have the edge in the Premier League title race. They have an easier run-in, and this weekend’s results apart, United have looked the more fragile team in the last month or so. Arsenal will play United at the Emirates but the title race could be decided this week with United due to travel to Stamford Birdge and Anfield (Tuesday and Sunday). It’s not going to be easy for United, and all Arsenal need to do now is to hold their nerve. At least they made their mistake in the Carling Cup and not in the league. Injuries would be a much greater worry for Arsenal at this point than ‘mental weakness’.
Arsenal should expect better
I wrote about the contrasting styles of Ferguson and Wenger a couple of years ago, and that comparison bears revisiting after this game. If we’re agreed that long-staying club managers aim to mould their teams into their own image, then we have to wonder if the problem with Arsenal is, simply, that Wenger hasn’t been able to teach his charges how to handle the pressure of being favourites on a regular basis. They’ve done well when cast as the underdogs – too well, at times, which raises expectations on the players. For all his cultured mannerisms Wenger is passionate and a fighter, and those qualities come to the fore when it’s about the team fighting for survival. However, handling the pressure of the ‘favourites’ tag requires a calmness and presence of mind that gets lost in emotions – and Arsenal were full of emotion going into the final.
If there’s any mistake Arsenal made in the build-up to this game, it was to take the final too seriously. Arsenal, Wenger, the players – all guilty of hyping up the game more than it needed to be, and raising expectations around players who have yet to be accustomed to success.
Ben Foster, Birmingham City’s goalkeeper, had an interesting story to tell about his time at Manchester United – that after the Carling Cup win of 2009, it was business as usual at training for the lads, no celebrations being allowed to interfere with upcoming games. You might have heard the story about Giggs, in the team huddle after United’s Champions League win in 2008, reminding the players that they need to do it again the next season. You might have laughed at Neville’s outrageously single-minded commitment to the game.
What you can’t laugh at though, is Manchester United’s record in the last two decades. And it comes from a mixture of experience, critical mistakes, sustained brilliance and sheer perseverance. Arsenal have the capacity to do the same, more so than other rival teams thanks to the stability around the club. You might look at Arsenal and say they’re not good enough. I think the problem isn’t that they’re not good enough, it’s just that they need to start expecting more from themselves, and stop hiding behind smokescreens.
I’m not talking about the public-facing corporate speak – keep that up if you want. But internally, Arsenal need to expect better from themselves. Leave the smokescreens for fans to console themselves with. It would be naive to consider that Arsenal don’t have high expectations from themselves, but they need to reconsider what they constitute as success. Outside, they can say whatever they want. Internally, only titles should matter. On the pitch or off it, only winning should suffice.
We talk about football being more than just a business. From a results perspective, Arsenal need to be reminded of that too.