The food fight at the end of the latest ‘match of the century’ generated more tabloid hyperbole than the typically fraught events on the pitch.Whilst removing pizza and soup from his suit would have proved a minor inconvenience to Sir Alex Ferguson, he would have taken satisfaction at the lack of self control demonstrated by Arsenal in defeat.
In the psychological shoots-out which have come to characterise these games, it is a clear victory for the United boss and informs him that his main protagonist can still be got at.
Unlike those in the Champions League, many teams in the Premiership feel inferior, and adopt appropriately pessimistic tactics, when it comes to facing Arsenal.
Too often are the opposition beaten before kick off. Man Utd, with European and Premiership trophies as sustenance, suffer no such sense of inadequacy. Their manager, a graduate, summa cum laude, at the University of Life, seems to relish getting under Arsenal’s skin. He seems to regard each game against the Gunners as an opportunity to test their mindset in laboratory conditions.
Football Psychology At It’s Best…
Can they handle the pressure? Are they yet ready to take the next step? What critical weaknesses can be exposed? It’s sports psychology at its gladitorial best.
Events on and off the pitch will have confirmed to Ferguson that a nagging insecurity tarnishes Arsenal’s unparalleled run of league success. Crucially, the Gunners know that he knows. This certainty of knowing is valuable currency in the high stakes game of mental poker being played out.
The Manchester United v Arsenal rivalry has become emotionally charged in recent years, as if invested with a self perpetuating electricity of its own, beyond the sterile everyday life of the Premiership. It’s an unequivocal test of will and nerve between managers and players.
Such pressure magnifies weaknesses. Last year’s unseemly jostling of Van Nistelroy and this year’s uncouth events in the tunnel, show us that Wenger’s players, taking their lead from their emotional thermometer, Henry, have an inclination to react when they sense injustice. But, taken too far, this is freedom of expression without responsibility.
Arsene Wenger, seeing his team’s core fallibilities exposed in test conditions at home and abroad, should turn the on and off field defeats into a blessing not a curse.
Evoking the classic ‘strength from adversity’ mantra he can ensure they will be ready, collectively when, in the Champions League, the cream of Europe set ever more searching examination questions.
The Football Psychology Summary…
Wenger, the alchemist, has demonstrated that he can eradicate the Gunners’ excesses. Through him, negatives become positives. Now, he has the chance to translate another nagging insecurity, a jagged scintilla of self-doubt, that Ferguson exposed at Old Trafford, into an affirmation of lessons learned.
If he can transform the wilful energy, redirect it, and take their expansive game to another level. grace and humility will replace indignity and self harm. Only then will the football gods usher the Gunners to the place in the sun where true champions reside.