Revealed: Arsenal's win that was all in the mind

Wenger used sports psychologist to brief team before victory at Bolton

Jason Burt
Tuesday 23 September 2008 00:00 BST
Wenger felt it necessary for the players to be encouraged by someone else rather than just him
Wenger felt it necessary for the players to be encouraged by someone else rather than just him

One of the secrets of Arsenal's impressive start to the season can be revealed today with the confidential details of a motivational briefing delivered to the players by a sports psychologist drafted in by the manager Arsène Wenger.

The astonishing fact about the briefing – contained on an A4 sheet of paper and given to the squad at a team meeting on the eve of their Premier League match away to Bolton Wanderers on Saturday – is its simplicity. The document runs to just 224 words and nine times in the opening two paragraphs the word "team" is used while there is also an emphasis on being "strong", having "belief" and "keep going until the end".

It is clear that Wenger was concerned that his young team, who played away from home three times last week, having also faced Blackburn Rovers and Dynamo Kiev, needed some outside help to bond and stick together during that testing schedule. It may also be that because of the taxing travelling arrangements, including the tiring flights to and from Ukraine, Wenger felt it necessary for the players to be encouraged by someone else rather than just him.

History also points to Arsenal's recurring unease on their trips to the North-west. The four points they dropped at Blackburn and Wigan Athletic last season would have raised them into second place above Chelsea. Indeed, Arsenal lost just three league games last season, all away from home. "Sometimes when we go away we just don't start well," said the defender Kolo Touré after the victory at Bolton. "We have been working on it." Clearly, part of that work is using a psychologist.

The messages he delivered were clear and simple and are, according to Arsenal players, in keeping with Wenger's own team talks, which are usually not particularly detailed and cover areas such as playing positively, rather than specific tasks given to each player.

Similarly, the psychologist's briefing calls for the team to work together and uses such words as "driving force" and "dynamic". It also makes observations on how the players should behave off as well as on the pitch calling for a "positive attitude" and a demand to "stay humble and grounded as a player and a person" which, again, reflects their youth.

Nothing, it adds, should be taken "for granted".

The message reinforces the principles Wenger has drilled into his team. The passage that will mean most to him and to Arsenal supporters is when there is a call for the players to "play the football we love to play at home" even when they are visiting grounds such as the Reebok stadium, which has not be an easy fixture for Arsenal in recent years – they have lost four times before winning there last season. For Wenger that is central to his football philosophy.

Arsenal won 3-1 on Saturday, of course, and the result propelled them to the top of the Premier League, a point ahead of Chelsea and Liverpool, having scored seven goals in the last two away league fixtures and resisting Bolton's physical approach. Little wonder another message in the briefing is the need to "stick together".

That the briefing is so simple may surprise some but, given the various nationalities in the Arsenal squad and given the youth of the team, then it is no real surprise. Nevertheless, Wenger has been sceptical about using psychologists in the past, with the club's former vice-chairman David Dein once remarking that Arsenal did not need such advice because they had a manager who could fulfil the function himself.

However, prior to the second leg of the Champions League last-16 tie against Real Madrid in 2006, Wenger used a psychologist and, although the club have not employed one on a full-time basis, it is understood to use various consultants on a freelance basis which the manager clearly feels is necessary at this time when a strong start to the season will breed confidence and banish the doubts over the strength of his squad.

Using a psychologist may also reveal Wenger's concerns that, although he may have the most technically gifted squad in the league, he is relying heavily on young players who fell away last season when it appeared that, improbably, the club could win a first league title in five years.

Yesterday Wenger said he felt that each of the so-called "big four" – Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool – had now "found their rhythm". "It'll be an interesting battle," he said of the league title race, while confirming that the injury to Gaël Clichy suffered against Bolton amounted to nothing more than a bruised shin. The left-back should be fit for Saturday's fixture against Hull.

In any case, Clichy would not have featured in tonight's Carling Cup tie at home to Sheffield United with Wenger – who said that at Arsenal "you can say that 20- to 21-year-olds are the experienced players" – set to field one of the youngest sides in the club's history. Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, the reserve team captain Gavin Hoyte, Kieran Gibbs and first-year scholar Emmanuel Frimpong are in the squad.


Team meeting 19th September 2008-09-22:

The team:

* A team is as strong as the relationships within it. The driving force of a team is its member's ability to create and maintain excellent relationships within the team that can add an extra dimension and robustness to the team dynamic.

* This attitude can be used by our team to focus on the gratitude and the vitally important benefits that the team brings to our own lives. It can be used to strengthen and deepen the relationships with it and maximise the opportunities that await a strong and united team.

Our team becomes stronger by:

* Displaying a positive attitude on and off the pitch

* Everyone making the right decisions for the team

* Have an unshakeable belief that we can achieve our target

* Believe in the strength of the team

* Always want more - always give more

* Focus on our communication

* Be demanding with yourself

* Be fresh and well prepared to win

* Focus on being mentally stronger and always keep going until the end

* When we play away from home, believe in our identity and play the football we love to play at home

* Stick together

* Stay grounded and humble as a player and a person

* Show the desire to win in all that you do

* Enjoy and contribute to all that is special about being in a team - don't take it for granted

Mind over matter: Who's who among sports psychologists

Bill Beswick

The first sports psychologist to work fully in professional football. He has worked with Steve McClaren at Middlesbrough and Manchester United and had a spell at Derby County. Beswick has also spent time with the England Under-18 and Under-21 sides. Former England cricketer Marcus Trescothick is currently working with Beswick to help maintain his career following his struggles with depression.

Eileen Drewery

Faith Healer employed by Glenn Hoddle during his time as England manager in the 1990s. Techniques ridiculed by some players but not all were against her. "I felt for her during all the fuss with the England players," midfielder Dennis Wise said in his autobiography. "The way she was made to look like some crank isn't fair. I thought she was really nice, she reminded me of my mum." Work came under scrutiny following Hoddle's comments about reincarnation, which led to his dismissal as national coach in 1999.

Steve Bull

Employed by the English Cricket Board in 2002, has worked to create an environment to improve mental toughness. Ashley Giles claimed Bull helped him overcome a lack of self-belief. Bull was flown to Cape Town in 2003 for England's opening World Cup match with Zimbabwe to spend almost three hours with the team and help them with their mental preparations. Was also present for England's Ashes victory in 2005.

Ross Hall

University of Glamorgan tutor helped with the British Paralympic rugby team. "It's my job to ensure they are able to cope with any distractions that might occur in training or games," he said.

Britain won silver.

Steve Peters

Worked with Olympic gold medal cyclist Victoria Pendleton. "I can honestly say I don't think I'd be here if it wasn't for Steve," she said.

And also...

Clive Woodward's man-management famously led England's rugby union team to World Cup glory in 2003. He received a knighthood and is now director of elite performance at the British Olympic Association.

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