"Together, together." That is how Robert Pires describes Arsenal's new approach to the game. No matter that there are exceptional individual talents at the club, the ethos this season is based firmly on team values. And no one is being allowed to forget that fact. The chief enforcer, Pires says, is Sol Campbell. Every time one of his team-mates scores a goal, the England centre-back runs up to the celebrating huddle of players and reminds them of the mantra: "Together, together".
It may all sound like psycho-babble, but the players are taking the fresh directives very seriously. The dramatic collapse of last season, when Arsenal surrendered a once-comfortable Premiership lead to finish second behind Manchester United, shook the club to their core. Come the end of the season, serious questions were asked of the players, while their manager, Arsène Wenger, was forced into a major rethink. "It's fair to say we had a demanding few weeks last summer," Pires admits, "but it was probably just what we needed."
Pires recalls how the players took stock, toughened up and decided they would never make the same mistakes. "I think we took it a bit too easy for certain games last year," the Frenchman concedes. "We were perhaps a little complacent. But now there is no mucking around. We are much more serious this season."
Arsenal's slackness in the championship run-in, when they dropped crucial points away to Bolton Wanderers and at home to Leeds United, cost them dear. Pires insists this was not because the players were ill-prepared or arrogant, but rather that there was an over-reliance on individuals to carry the team. "It's much more about the group nowadays," he explains, "and that makes it a lot easier to deal with everything that is thrown at us."
The next three weeks will test Arsenal's mettle, as the Gunners face Chelsea twice (once in the FA Cup and once in the Premiership) before resuming their Champions' League campaign against Celta Vigo. "The two games against Chelsea could go a long way towards shaping the rest of the season," Pires says. "Playing them twice will be demanding, but we have to rise to the challenge. Despite what a lot of people are saying, everyone at Arsenal knows that Chelsea are still in with a shout at the title. It's going to be between the three top teams [Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea], and there is still plenty of time for the lead to chop and change."
Pires adds: "One win against us and another win against Man U would put Chelsea right back in the frame. It's so close the whole picture can easily change over the course of one set of matches."
Events in midweek proved as much, when Arsenal profited from Manchester United's defeat at home to Middlesbrough to extend their lead to five points. "There's no doubt that Man U are missing Rio Ferdinand [who is suspended for eight months following his failure to attend a doping test]," Pires says, "but let's not be silly enough to write them off at this stage of the season."
So was that not the turning point of the campaign? "No, no," Pires insists. "Remember that this time last year we were six points ahead, and yet we all know what happened to us in the end."
Does last season's débâcle explain why no one at Arsenal seems interested in talking about the prospect of finishing the League season unbeaten? After all, the club are in a much better position to achieve their improbable aim this time around. "It would be an unbelievable exploit," Pires says, "and it's true that we're in a great position this year. But we're not there yet and that's why we're not stopping now. We're staying focused."
Keeping cool will prove equally important over the coming few weeks, as teams compete to become the first to defeat Arsenal in the Premiership this season. "What is certain," Pires explains, "is that the mental side of the game will be the most important thing for us between now and May. We know we're good enough, so the key is going to be making sure that we stay concentrated. Teams are going to try everything to put us off or even destabilise us, so it's going to be up to us to keep our discipline. The worst thing we could do is bite back when we're provoked. We've got to rise above it all and fight on intelligently."
Intelligently, but boldly, too. While Arsenal appear to have worked out a way to keep opposition teams at bay, they have lost none of their attacking flair. Wenger's men are still the most dynamic and graceful side to watch when breaking from deep, and Thierry Henry remains the best all-round striker in the division. "People ask me if I think Titi will break Ian Wright's scoring record [of 185 goals] for the club," Pires says, "but it's not a case of if, it's a case of when. He's getting closer and closer [Henry is on 136 at the moment], and I expect him to make it soon."
Pires is equally enthusiastic about the Arsenal new boy, Jose Antonio Reyes. He believes it is perfectly normal for the Spanish teenager to be taking a while to settle in. "It's a very different environment, on and off the pitch," Pires says, "so he just needs to be given time. But he'll definitely make it here. In Spain, he's already a star, which proves that he's real quality. He has a special technique and I think he will give us that little something extra that you need, especially if you want to progress in Europe."
Pires, who speaks fluent Spanish, has been helping Reyes settle in. "So far, so good," he smiles, "although I think he's finding hard to adjust to our eating times. In Spain, you don't eat at seven or eight, you eat at midnight." Reyes may be struggling to get to grips with the meal times, but he has been left in no doubt about the team's hunger to succeed. "I've told him many times," Pires says. "It's together, together."Reuse content