Monday, 14 December 2009

Confidence is Everything

As the final whistle blows at any football match, those who have watched it will draw several conclusions. Arsenal's 2-1 victory at Anfield on Sunday was no different. As the fans of the two teams broke out onto the Walton Breck Road, the contrast in emotions was vast. Arsenal fans marvelled at the shock of a weekend that had seen their team re-emerge as potential title winners whilst those in a different shade of red were bemoaning another defeat and the continued unpredictability of Rafael Benitez's reign. For those who were not influenced by club emotions, Sunday's match may have provided an insight into the complex, yet vital world of sports psychology.

Simply put, this was the classic game of two halves. Liverpool's dominance in the opening 45 minutes saw them go in with a fully deserved half time lead. Little over an hour later, it would not have been incorrect to comment that Arsenal were comfortable winners. Despite the fragile nature of a one goal advantage, the inevitability of the three points heading to London was clear to all those watching. What was staggering was the manner in which this game was won and lost in the mind. For all of his faults (mainly eyesight and temper tantrums), Arsene Wenger is frequently praised for his attitude towards player psychology. Wenger would be the first to acknowledge the vital role of confidence in football. Rarely has the importance of a team's mental state been exposed as vividly as it was at Anfield.

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Despite their woes in recent weeks, Liverpool's first half performance was superb. A team famous for their free-flowing football were barely being given space to breath in the midfield by Javier Mascherano and the much-maligned Lucas Leiva. Cesc Fabregas, one of the world's most natural ball playing midfielders, looked like a lost child in a man's world. Despite Howard Webb's decision to turn down Steven Gerrard's penalty appeals, Liverpool maintained an intensity for 45 minutes that makes them a very difficult side to live with. As the players left the pitch for the warmth of the Anfield changing rooms with Dirk Kuyt's scrambled goal separating the sides, it is hard to believe that Benitez could have been happier with his players. His delight at Webb's performance may have lacked such affection but nevertheless, all seemed rosy at Liverpool once again.

Across the Anfield corridor, Wenger was making his point clear. Despite seeing his team lose frustratingly before, the Frenchman chose now to discard his usual calm for a ruthless 15 minutes with his team. He had not seen the real Arsenal, his Arsenal. It has been revealed in the aftermath that Wenger claimed his men were 'not fit to wear the shirt', the ultimate insult to any professional. Although this is the only quote to escape the walls of the away changing room, you can only assume that the rest of the half time speech was similarly blunt. Whilst telling his wingers to get higher up the pitch to open out the midfield for Fabregas, the overwhelming message for the Arsenal players was that such a performance would not be tolerated again. The only option? Improve. And do it quickly. Wenger left his players with no doubt in their minds as to what would be expected of them after the break. Back in the Liverpool changing room, the enthusiasm of Benitez and his staff would have certainly been supported by a warning. Arsenal would not be that poor again and they would come flying at Liverpool from the first whistle in the second half.

For reasons that Benitez must uncover quickly, Liverpool failed to deal with the improved Arsenal. An early raid down the right and Glen Johnson's failure to organise his feet in time provided Arsenal with a soft leveller. Although clearly shaken, Liverpool continued to pass the ball and a Torres raid down the Arsenal right caused the travelling fans at the Anfield Road end to hold their breath. Then it happened. Anonymous so far, a Fabregas cross fell to the feet of Andrei Arshavin and the Russian provided a moment of world-class quality to send the ball hurtling into the Liverpool goal. As soon as the ball hit Pepe Reina's net, the entire complexion of the game changed. From this moment, it was clear that Liverpool would lose. The sharp passing game that had served them so well in the first half had gone, to be replaced by hopeful punts forward by the back four in the vague direction of the increasingly despondent looking Fernando Torres. The Kop was willing resurgence. After all, this is what Liverpool do. Nothing is easy. Every victory relies on spirit and courageous determination. What will hurt the Anfield faithful the most about this match is the fact that it never came. There wasn't even a real moment of promise near the Arsenal penalty area. The final third of the match was not the resurgence that was required. It was a somber understanding that this match had slipped away.

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This match was lost in the mind. As soon as Arshavin struck, the whole world was suddenly against Liverpool. The refused penalty appeal in the first half was important again. It was evidence that this wasn't Liverpool's day. Arsenal had managed to enter the Liverpool penalty area twice and had only converted one chance themselves. However, when you are down, such thinking does not enter the mind. In the heads of the Liverpool players, they had thrown it away and were the poor team that the media had built them up to be. No sooner had this thought entered the minds of the players, they were a poor team again. Aimless long balls and a lack of movement were features of the second half performance. The contrast between the terrier like midfield of the opening 45 minutes and the forlorn figures chasing shadows in the second provides a graphic illustration of the importance of a strong mentality in a footballer's weaponry. A set-back should provide no reason for work rate to dip but when you are struggling, the expectation of defeat can be difficult to shake off. On the other hand, Arsenal were basking in their own glory. Two goals had changed the way that the away team was performing. Every pass had become easy. The flicks and tricks that had been so predictable in the first half were now moments of inspiration for the fans to cheer. Despite never looking like extending their lead, Wenger wouldn't have been worried by the narrow advantage. Furthermore, he would have been delighted that his harsh words at the interval could be replaced by words of praise at the final whistle.

This match has the potential to have a lasting effect on both of these clubs. Whilst Wenger will do everything in his power to ensure that the confidence exuding from his players in the final third of the match remains for the considerable future, Benitez will continue in his battle to restore confidence to his stuttering Liverpool team. As their first half performance demonstrated, whilst not being the best, this is not a terrible Liverpool side. When the mentality is right these players can compete with any side in the Premier League. Frustratingly for Benitez and the Kopites, every time it seems that Liverpool have turned a corner, the players' confidence is shattered the moment something goes against them. Learning to trust in ability when a match is going against you is something that Benitez needs to implant into the Liverpool mindset. If he is struggling to do this then he need look no further than 'Le Professeur', the master of player psychology.

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