You can sometimes tell it by the way players do unexpected things. Last Saturday, for instance, Thierry Henry harried back 30 yards to regain the ball after losing it on the edge of the box. This was after six minutes, with Arsenal 2-0 up at home to Charlton and playing like interplanetary champions.
Or five minutes from time in the same match, when Robert Pires, not noted for his covering, got back into the Arsenal box to thump clear a dangerous incoming cross.
The Frenchman shook his head as team-mates offered him the brief pats that are the pro's acknowledgement of a significant contribution. It was as if Pires was saying "It shouldn't come to this, me having to act like a centre-back", and after Arsenal's sublime opening, to which he had contributed the first goal, he had a point. But the fact was the dashing midfielder had got his legs back into the box to make the clearance.
OK, we know that commitment is holy law for the professional footballer. Even when facing opponents who haven't a prayer, managers do not tend to demand anything less than total commitment from their charges.
"All right, lads, this lot aren't particularly good, so I want to see 74 per cent from everyone today..."
No, it's an alien concept to the managerial breed, particularly at this time of year as everything quickens towards fruition - or decay.
But what we are talking about here goes beyond commitment. It was evident at Highbury last Saturday, and at the following day's Carling Cup final, when Bolton and Middlesbrough were both desperate for a trophy, both convinced they were destined to triumph.
There is no mistaking it. Every gesture, every expression tells you when a team want something genuinely. It is something you can feel rather than see.
After Arsenal's win, walking back to the Tube station, I found myself behind two home supporters discussing the match.
"Last season we would have let them back into it,' said one. "We would have lost that 3-2."
"They're passionate now," said the other.
Passion. There was plenty of it around at Norwich on Tuesday night as well, when the home side and West Bromwich Albion began and ended their match separated by three points at the top of the First Division.
At one point, the television monitors in the press box showed Norwich's director and celebrity cook, Delia Smith, waving madly from the stands. The woman who has added millions of pounds to the Carrow Road pot in recent years, and who had already received a touching tribute from the visiting fans - "You're s***, and you can't cook eggs, you're s***, and you can't cook eggs..." - was merely welcoming a substitute on to the field. She looked as if her soufflé had just risen.
After a tumultuous yet goalless draw, Albion's manager, Gary Megson, who took his side up to the Premiership two seasons ago only to have to lead them back down again last year, was asked if it made things easier for him having travelled the territory before.
"It's difficult at this stage of the season," he reflected, hoarse from his evening's vocal exertions. "You play for three-quarters of the season in a certain manner. Then it starts to get a lot different. It's like playing the last nine holes of golf on finals day. You've got to keep yourself there."
It is still too early to tell who will occupy the posh seats when the music stops at the season's end. But you could reasonably bet on Arsenal, Norwich City and West Bromwich Albion being there.Reuse content