Football: Clubs stuck in 'same old' pattern of failure

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger and Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola.
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger and Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON • "Same old Arsenal." That was the familiar refrain after last Sunday's away defeat by Manchester City, in which Arsene Wenger's side surrendered a 1-0 lead to lose meekly (1-2) against one of their title rivals.

The contention is that, for the past decade, Arsenal have lacked the stomach to win big matches and make a successful assault on the English Premier League title, a defining characteristic that goes to the heart of the club, no matter the players on the pitch.

Arsenal are not the only football team who are alleged to have a definitive performance genotype.

There is boom-and-bust Newcastle United, who are brilliant or dreadful from one season to the next. Or Tottenham Hotspur, whose self-sabotaging brittleness beneath a stylish exterior is so quintessential there is even a word for it: "Spursy".

But do these stereotypes hold true? Can a club's results really be dictated by a particular characteristic that outlasts the turnover of players and managers?

  • The 'same old' guilty party

  • ARSENAL

    Have finished in the top four in each of the past 20 league seasons, but have not won the title since 2004. Often criticised for wilting in the big matches.

    NORTHAMPTON TOWN

    Played in the old Division 3 South from 1920 to 1958.

    TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR

    Have not won the title since 1961 despite spending all but one of the subsequent seasons in the top flight, earning a reputation for being flaky, and failing to live up to expectations.

    COVENTRY CITY

    Have not recorded a top-six finish in any division since 1970 despite falling from the top flight to League One.

    ROCHDALE

    Spent 36 seasons in the fourth tier of English football from 1974 to 2010, the longest unbroken period any team have spent in the bottom division.

    NEWCASTLE UNITED

    A club who veered from excellent to awful.

    In recent seasons they have followed relegation from the Premier League (in 2009) with winning the Championship, and then went from fifth in the top flight (in 2012) to 16th the next year. They are leading the Championship after relegation.

    THE TIMES, LONDON

"Analytics may agree or disagree based on data, but from a human point of view, they can," says Dan Abrahams, a sports psychologist who has worked with several football clubs.

"A football club is an organisation, and organisations can get in stuck patterns: of culture, coaching or communication. And these can produce over-outcomes that can be stereotyped into something, 'same old Arsenal', or 'typical Spurs', for example.

"That can come from the boardroom down, it can come from managers, and it can be inherited from year to year, from decade to decade."

What is curious about the example of Arsenal is that the paradigm has clearly shifted within Wenger's tenure.

Up to the 2003-04 season, they were serial winners with a razor edge. Since then, they have been a highly skilled but underachieving team, with not enough steel allied to their silk.

"I think that there has been an attitude shift, and that shift is due to the manager," says Phil Wall of the Arsenal Supporters Trust.

"You can see it when they walk back after conceding a goal. You look at some of them and think they're not bothered."

Part of the problem for Arsenal and teams attempting to shed the "same old" stigma, is that it takes more than a few high-quality signings for a club to shift a longstanding culture of underachievement.

"You get caught up," says Abrahams. "It's classic social psychology. The minority aligns with the majority. You can bring in a couple of players who are very good - positive, optimistic, hard-working.

"But it won't be long before they align themselves with the values of the club: the behaviour becomes aligned, and subsequently so do the performances."

The characterisation of stylish nearly-but-not-quite merchants is one that has dogged Arsenal's arch-rivals Tottenham for decades, ever since they most recently won the league title in 1961.

It was not entirely dispelled by the events of last season, in which they surged into contention for the title, only to stagger over the line with two points from their last four games to end up third.

"I don't like the word 'Spursy' - every club has to have its own identity and I think at Spurs we do," says Micky Hazard, who played in the talented Tottenham team of the 1980s who won two FA Cups but never finished higher than third in the league.

"We demand to (win) with style, and that's passed down through generations. (But) the philosophy that's preached at Spurs doesn't lend itself to winning the title and being consistent over 38 games."

Rightly or wrongly, the idea that some clubs are destined to repeat the same old failings is not just a media confection - it is something that teams themselves are keenly aware of.

But changing the DNA of a football club is not straightforward, and even the prospect of glory is not enough to quell all resistance.

"Maybe there has to be a slight change in philosophy (at Tottenham), but I for one wouldn't want to see that," Hazard says.

"I wouldn't want to see us become dull just to win the league. I want to see us be successful playing the way we play."

Sometimes, the same old flaws are the ones we hold dearest.

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 23, 2016, with the headline 'Clubs stuck in 'same old' pattern of failure'. Print Edition | Subscribe