Football is a game of theories. Or is it opinions? Like armpits we all have two they say. Or not. In any event I have a theory or two one of which involves this weird, arcane mystery we call ‘form’. Teams have it, players have it, a player can lose it while playing in a team that still has it a team can lose it while a player integral to that team is finding it playing in a team that has lost it. It is linked to class but only in cliche, it is a transient, intangible wil o’ the wisp entity, a surfboard which, once a team or individual is fortunate enough to clamber onto, can be ridden to the admiring gasps and applause of everybody on the beach.
My belief or theory is simply this. A team will carry the form from one season into the next. There, not too contentious nor too difficult to grasp. There seems no rhyme or reason to this. Different playing personnel, a new guy in the treatment room , higher ticket prices a dry and rainless September; all irrelevant. Regardless, it seems to me of outside forces or inner turmoil or calm or whatever, we will start off where we left off. We ended last season struggling to find our form. We stuttered and coughed our way to the FA Cup Final like my old Lambretta Li 150 used to splutter it’s way to Bath in the morning when I worked in the MOD at Ensleigh. We barely made it through the semi final and then huffed and puffed before finally blowing Hull’s house down at Wembley and we have been battling to get out of that rut ever since.
Unsurprisingly and in similarly unscientific vein I will support my theory by going back to the start of last season. We began really well, coherent, cohesive, confident – we were table toppers, sweeping all before us with breathtaking displays of consummate footballing ease. Scoring erection inducing goals like the orgasmic one touch team effort against Norwich, and producing climactic football of bewildering telepathic style as we swept Napoli aside in an unforgettable first half, as good a first half as I can remember. I wasn’t in any way surprised by the way we started our campaign last time around because it was in precisely this unbeatable form that we had ended the season before, thundering up the table to claim our rightful place among Europe’s elite. Of course for reasons we all know and which have been sufficiently rehashed here and elsewhere we faltered. Confidence, that elusive and teasing lover turned her back on form and we fell just short, a couple of places and a few points shy of where we wanted to be.
Why does this happen to teams, to individuals within those teams? Why are athletes, all so rigorously trained and finely tuned susceptible to losing their mojos and how do they get back into the groove? Arsène seems to believe that you simply have to keep on doing what you’re doing, keep on trying to do the right things and as long as you have the right players and the right balance in the side then the good stuff will once more start to flow and confidence will flutter her eyelashes, then where form once shrunk shrivelled and forlorn he will grow firm, tumescent and proud and we will be rampant once again. In other words there is no magic formula nor any science that can be brought to bear. These things come and go, are cyclic in nature, you just have to believe that positive effort will breed positive results, or as a mathematically inclined and literal friend of mine used to say, x = x.
Let’s not shy away from the truth here. It is obvious that we are stuttering a little this season. A couple of players are clearly struggling to produce the form of which we know they are capable and the understanding between team mates isn’t always evident. Passes appear to go awry because the intended recipient moves in an unexpected direction or doesn’t make the anticipated run, two players find themselves occupying the same space and attempting to play the ball at the same time, majestic, sweeping cross field passes are over hit by the merest fraction of an ounce and sail out of play. We seem sometimes to be trying to force the issue, confused when the move breaks down, when the one touch passing is intercepted, struggling to repair the damage when a usually reliable player is dispossessed. It’s as if there is a drop of water in the carburettor and the normally quiet purr of the Arsenal engine experiences an occasional cough, an arrhythmic interruption in its usual sweet melody.
Now, before we get carried away, I have to say that we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that the vehicle we’re discussing is not something thrown together in Harry Redknapp’s scrapyard. This is a beautiful machine, lovingly assembled by one of the games greatest craftsmen, superbly engineered from nothing but the finest components and even when not running at its smoothest is still a far far better ride than ninety percent of all other cars on the road. The only problem is that when you meet Dortmund in the scintillating pomp of their very best form or Martin Atkinson and Eden Hazard playing at the absolute top of their game at Stamford Bridge then you need to be firing on all cylinders, anything less and you get found out.
Will Sunderland be the game in which we turn the mythical corner of which bloggers and journalists are so fond of speaking? I don’t think so. Not because I have lost belief in the team or the individuals within it but because I don’t subscribe to the bunkum that good form is regained overnight or in one afternoon. It is a gradual process and a good win today will be a step on the road nothing more. Confidence can be easily lost but has to be found again carefully, it is a cumulative and delicate process. Unless of course, you are Lukas Podolski . I suppose some players just have that innate brashness and joie de vivre that allows them to express their love of the game and all round happiness with their lot by sauntering into a cauldron of uncertainty and trepidation and calmly banging home the ball at the first available opportunity. Just like some folk respond to praise while others like to have their faults explained to them in agonising detail so they can better address them, footballers are individuals, human beings and no matter how well trained nor how lavishly rewarded are frail and susceptible creatures just like you and I.
Of course one thing is beyond question. All sportsmen respond better to a positive, supportive and encouraging environment. No one ever performed better because some mindless, talentless, moronic oaf yelled abuse at him or whipped up an angry mob to decry his ability to succeed. How well would you do your job if folk gathered around you to groan every time you tried something and it didn’t quite work? I firmly believe that Arsène’s beautiful, sexy machine will soon be running smoothly again, that Santi will find his passes that Aaron will find the goal and that before too long we will all have plenty to celebrate. In the meantime we can help each other and help the team by staying positive, by keeping to our principles and by doing the one job that supporters have to do. Support.