Arsene Wenger has had much to say about belief recently. After the Wolves game he told his interviewer that “The most important thing is to play for each other and keep your belief. In this job there is never enough belief.”
It`s a theme that can be found running through his whole tenure at the club. In Wenger`s very early days at the club Paul Merson famously replied “Unbelievable Belief” when asked what the then new Arsenal manager brought to the team.
Belief in what Wenger was doing was quickly established as he turned the boring, boring Arsenal tag on its head while producing a double winning side in his 2nd season at the club. Though he was to go another 3 seasons before winning another trophy in 2002 belief had remained with a club that continued to challenge United for the honours. The unbeaten season which followed validated that belief even beyond most expectations and was a consequence of the belief that had been instilled in the club and its supporters in a period of success unmatched since the Chapman era.
As much as the dietary regimes, training programmes, sports science and footballing philosophies that Wenger brought with him it was that concept of unbelievable belief that turned very good players into great ones. The confidence that had drained from Bergkamp and Henry in Italy was recovered to sublime effect at Highbury. Pires, recruited at 28 years of age played the best football of his career as the reputations of players built at Arsenal rarely, if ever, flourished to the same extent away from the club. “Nobody gets worse under Wenger” a chastened Alex Hleb stated recently.
The atmosphere of belief permeated the whole club especially amongst the supporters who hadn`t enjoyed the same level of confidence in previous teams that they then came to accept as standard in the new Arsenal. That belief, inculcated amongst supporters, could reach out from the stands and feed the belief of the team. But that changed as big spending oligarchs challenged the cosy duopoly of Arsenal and United at the same time as Arsenal were forced to look beyond next seasons trophy in order to steer the clubs fortunes towards decades still to come.
Belief begun to ebb from the club at a time when the club had needed it most – especially amongst supporters who had little experience of earlier failures. The youth policy, rooted in financial restrictions as the new stadium took place, brought talent to the club but talent with the frailty of confidence inherent in youth. When asked, in an interview with BBC Five Live towards the end of last season, why he refused to publically criticise his players Wenger replied:
“When you are young, 20 or 25, you look for confidence, and this game lives off confidence. When the confidence goes the game goes, the results go.”
He was later to tell an audience of shareholders that “Some players have good periods or bad periods. If they don’t do well it is because they have lost confidence. But the only way to help a guy who has lost confidence is to support him. But by slaughtering him it does not help.”
As confidence begins to fail it becomes ever harder to regain and harder still to maintain. Mistakenly many supporters, whose own confidence in the team began to fail based on expectations raised over a relatively short time, could only see this lack of belief or confidence amongst the team as a lack of determination, grit, fighting spirit, a weakness of mentality, the lack of a will to win. That lack of belief in the team manifested itself in the discontent that at times created a hostile atmosphere towards the team and individual players in its own stadium.
The same negativity also made the task of instilling the unbelievable belief that Merson felt the team and players benefited from years earlier even harder. Highlighting the problem at the shareholders meeting Wenger explained “We have had negative vibes and manipulation around the team. It is very hard work to keep the confidence and energy demands because we had to support the team against the odds.”
Going into this season expectations for the team weren`t high. Such expectations as there were largely focussed on who might take 4th place from us. Of course there is still some way to go but the odds of us winning the PL title outright have now dropped from 12/1 to 10/3.
Belief is increasing as a consequence of a decent start to the season but still fragile as the response to the concession of late goals that cost us points in CL and PL encounters against Alkmaar and West Ham illustrates. Wenger took this seriously enough to be seen throwing his jacket at his chair as he failed to communicate instructions in the recent game against Spurs. That seemed an incongruous act in a game we were leading 3-0 but it was rooted in a belief that the team needed to keep a clean sheet more than they needed to score another goal. The team needed the confidence of a sound defensive performance such was the impact of dropping points in the previous encounters. Equally importantly Wenger could sense the supporters needed that confidence too.
The nature of support has changed a little just as the game itself has changed substantially. Support is less parochial because big league football doesn`t want to be confined in that way. As a consequence some support is more conditional and those sections of support need its belief to be justified first. At one time supporters were a greater bastion of unshakeable support backing the team through both lean and buoyant times – though that didn`t exclude the pleasure of post match criticism of players and performances in the bar after the game. It is still true, perhaps to a lesser extent, but supporters didn`t need belief they were believers anyway. It was their role to try to instil belief in the team just as much as the managers and coaches and if it didn`t succeed it was even possible to take a perverse pride in being crap.
Success breeds success the maxim has it but it`s the circular maxim that confidence breeds success and success breeds confidence that unbelievable belief tries to break into. To a greater extent than in the past the club has to try to manage the confidence of its support in order to exercise proper influence over confidence of the team. Supporting a football team was in the past a theology, the belief being an act of faith that those believers would get their reward at some point in the future even if you can`t see it yet. It`s belief amongst supporters in their team that can help take the team that little bit further. Unbelievable though it might be if the team is to achieve anything this season then both the players and we as supporters had better believe it.
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