Against Aston Villa, an entirely tepid Arsenal side drifted to a 1-0 loss, in stark contrast to their powerful performances against City and Liverpool the week previously. That’s because this team has an underdog mentality, and that mentality can only go so far.
Arsenal‘s best performances under Mikel Arteta have come when there has been little expected of them. The win at Manchester United. The 10-man, 2-2 draw at Chelsea that they deserved to win. The back-to-back wins against City and Liverpool are the crown jewel of the underdog crown. We play best when we have nothing to lose; when our backs are to the wall we truly fight back.
Contrast that with the capitulation against Brighton, the frustrated 2-1 defeat in the North London Derby, and now this shambolic defeat to an Aston Villa side fighting to stay up. There’s a pattern forming, and it’s one we need to break.
In each of those disappointing losses, the Gunners have been characterized by a pallid style of play that leads to a lack of fire and a lack of fight, and that malaise comes hand-in-hand with the implication of Arsenal being the superior side. When everyone says that Arsenal is a shoo-in to win a match, it’s almost written in stone that they’ll do their best to lose it.
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The underdog mentality has carried this team thus far since the appointment of Arteta, with both the good and bad sides of his managerial career stemming from its influence. Even the press surrounding his move has contributed to that view. Placing an untested, unproven, not-yet-40-year-old in charge of a Big Six club was a move categorized with some suspicion, and it hasn’t really faded since the restart.
As I’ve written previously, the Gunners have relearned how to play Premier League football under Mikel Arteta, but they have yet to figure out how to dominate a game, how to take the opposition by the horns and throw them to the ground.
During Man City’s 4-0 demolition of Watford—the match before the Gunners were overwhelmed by Aston Villa—the commentator said something that stuck with me. “This Manchester City team are the most ruthless side I’ve ever seen in the Premier League, by a long way.” That killer instinct is the Mikel Arteta standard, and the team is not living up to those expectations, at least not week-in, week-out. That ruthlessness that will allow us to overcome the underdog mentality.
The way of the underdog has created a mid-table team out of Arsenal, and that’s a trend that has to be broken. Not as a mission for Sunday’s match against Watford, or the FA Cup Final against Chelsea—I daresay we could use it then—but rather for the break before the 2021 season. But mark my words, this squad will not succeed until it overcomes its underdog mentality, and starts playing like Arsenal again.