The confidence gap
POSITIVES, NEEDS and HOPES
I think we all have a tendency to put labels on human characteristics. I used to do it until I became aware that it really is never closer than 80% true. In my job I teach children of all ages all day long. I have been doing it since I was 16. I think it is fair to say that I know I am fairly good at it. My whole adult life I periodically get told that I am ‘a very confident person.’ Folks will say this to me after watching me teach young people. They will say it to me when I am talking about football. They will say it to me when I get passionate about something. The truth is that I am very confident at 60% of what I do in my life. The other 40% I lack a level of confidence. So, am I a confident person? Well, the truth is that I am in certain scenarios and not in others. That goes for any adjective.
Watching the first half yesterday I was trying to evaluate why the team looked so mediocre. We weren’t playing a top team and it is only preseason. No need for nerves, right? Then it dawned on me. There were so many players out there that lacked confidence in a handful of areas of their game. It wouldn’t be fair to say that Rob Holding is a ‘bad player’ or ‘not good enough’ or has ‘no confidence.’ He has proven in different scenarios that he can be a good player and very much good enough. Put him in a deep block and ask him to be a warrior and you would find it hard to not want him in the side. He starts to exude confidence in this scenario.
So, I am learning. There are very few absolutes in human characteristics.
At the same time, the team that came out in the second half and the substitutes that came on for the last half an hour were clearly much more confident in their ability. To the point where some of them were encouraging the opponent to try something because they knew that they could deny them. The most obvious comparison was Holding and Saliba. Holding does not feel confident playing in the high line and he is a touch shaky and he became overly aggressive as he overcompensated. His understanding of spatial awareness in a back four is not the same, his one-on-one defending isn’t as good, and his recovery pace is mostly absent. Saliba on the other hand might be still a young man but seems to have the confidence of an emperor. He was almost taunting people to try to beat him one on one which very few have in the last year at Marseille. He won every aerial dual and never got beaten for pace. Seemed positionally astute and looks to pass forwards whereas Holding didn’t seem to ever want to risk passing forwards. The comparison between Partey and Elneny was the same. Pepe and Saka. Gabriel and Mari.
That is how I see the major difference between our first team players and some of our second and third team players.
It is confidence because they don’t trust their quality.
Most everything that we complain about in their game is directly linked to the fact that they are not confident enough to try it or risk it.
Perhaps the most interesting example was Eddie. He was a very frustrated figure in the first half as he was starved of service and very frustrated at the lack of adventure in his teammates. Then within 30 seconds (again) that Gabriel Jesus came on, everything changed.
Not only is his quality a level higher but his confidence is currently unmatched in the Arsenal team beyond Thomas Partey. He gets called the ‘spark’ and this is simply because he is more daring. This changed Eddie’s confidence level. He started trying to replicate Jesus. It has been quite a while since I have seen such a rapid change in a player as I am seeing in Eddie. He has improved his all-around game but what is most evident is that Jesus ignites the adventure in him.
It seems that I am learning that some players lack confidence because of an ability they simply don’t have, and others need to be nudged to show it.
What is most encouraging about the current Arsenal team and probably the reason why so many fans are enthused at what they are seeing is that Arsenal have identified the confidence gap. It seems that the players that struggled in the first half either will not be at Arsenal in September or will play significantly less than others. The owners were there last night, and I appreciate them investing in reducing this gap.
- After seeing Jesus live, the best way I can describe him is this… the majority of players out there looked like they were playing a football match because they were told to. He looked like he was playing a football match because he really wanted to. His enthusiasm infects others around him. The adventurousness encourages others to replicate. The movement on and off the ball challenges the other forwards to try to match. I am reminded very much of Ian Wright when I watch Gabriel Jesus. Very similar in their attitude towards the game.
- How very interesting it was to see William Saliba playing in the middle of a back three. I assumed that he would play on the left and Gabriel would play in the center as he has in the past. Even though the setup of last night’s made more sense, there is such responsibility of communication for the central centre back in a three and I was concerned that Saliba could think and communicate in English quick enough on the field. Very very interesting that he was trusted with this responsibility and honestly, the guy looks dominant out there. So, in charge. Really hard to believe that he’s not in his prime.
- Martin Odegaard is a joy to watch live. Never seems to break sweat stylistically even though he was physically covered in sweat. They say that the best players make football look easy and I see this in him.
- In the first half many of Orlando’s attacks came from exit routes over the top of our press into the middle third. Mo Elneny does not have the athleticism Thomas Partey has and so was always second to the ball. You might remember last season how Thomas Partey found his confidence switch. As soon as he found it, he was a different player. Actually, he was the same player but just became willing to try things that he was capable of before. Confidence. What I loved about his performance last night was that he would often shift the defensive block one way by dribbling on an angle and then quickly turn and hit the ball the other way which completely disorganized them.
- It was super interesting to see which group played which formation. The first team players were given the 3-1-4-2 formation. The more I see this formation the more I am becoming convinced that it is suiting our current players. We still have more players to add to the squad in the transfer market and a handful that are out injured, but Eddie and Jesus look so much better together than alone and that back three looks very solid even though this opposition were mediocre.
- We seem to be making a habit, at least in the last two games, of managing the game very well in the last 20 minutes. We have been two goals up in the last two games and I have noticed us swinging the ball from left to right repeatedly to exhaust and discourage our opponents. An encouraging development as Arsenal have been guilty in the past of not being mature enough to manage games
- I have seen Xhaka play as a left eight quite a few times now. I think that he excels as a central midfielder in a two but is limited in his skill set for the left 8 position. He does not really offer a goal threat and certainly not a dribbling threat and seems to be mostly a continuity player in that position. If he does stay this summer, I think that we will see him in games that will be mental challenges for the others as he seems to stabilize them. Not sure we will see him more than 50% of the time though.
- I rambled on in my podcast last week about Maitland Niles. Seeing him live only added to the frustration. Such talent but simply does not care enough compared to the others. Nelson has been infuriating me at preseason also. He has a similar large toolbox to Maitland Niles but seems too willing to pass the buck. When he finally attacked his defender at the very end of the game, he was quite devastating as his touches are so frequent that he is very hard to tackle. The goal that he scored I have seen quite a few times and so he offers that threat too. Ultimately, I don’t see him staying as he only convinces in patches, and we need more. A big shame. There is clearly a very talented player in there. Also, it is interesting that he has been used so far and Balogun hasn’t.
- Where was the one touch that we saw against Everton? It was only the last 30 minutes that we started to move the ball with that tempo. I thought that we would take advantage of our superior technique as it was obvious that Orlando are in the middle of the season and more match fit than us and could outrun us.
- Preseason has not been a good commercial for Pablo Mari. Even though we still need a second left centre back, I am not sure it is going to be him. Gaps between he and Tavares and Holding were too large and he was caught out on numerous occasions. The high line does not suit Holding or Mari and I imagine only one of them will stay at the club to be an option for when we have to play a deep block or cup/ Europa games. Holding was also very lucky to stay on the field as he showed petulance at the end of the first half after already being booked. Not a good night for Rob. To be fair to him, it was interesting that he was given the captaincy to start the game. There were other players on the field like Mo and Ramsdale that could have got it. It does make me think that perhaps Rob will stay and be part of the captain group that Arteta will soon pick. I know that he has been given more responsibility and shown more willingness to help other players behind the scenes. Matt Turner in particular.
- Nuno switches off. I suspected that he had this bad habit. When you watch him live and see the whole field, you see that he is too trusting of his athleticism to catch the play. He is often daydreaming and too slow to overlap and too slow to react to danger. This will be observed by the coaching staff I am sure, and likely the main reason that he looks like he is going on loan. A trip to Brighton would be best for him so that he could stay in touch with the Premier League. If he is there, maybe somebody can teach him to shoot as well.
- I am still kind of frustrated that Torreira came of this trip, never played and has been sent home. Patino would have really benefited from being around the group and getting some minutes. I do wonder if he will be flown out now for the Chelsea game.
- I do wonder if the winger that we sign will be a player that specializes in flair and raw pace. When we are not at the top of our game, I would describe us as unadventurous. When Gabriel Jesus plays, he has both of these qualities, but he seems somewhat alone in this. We have a few quick players but very few who are fast either running with the ball or off the ball. I still lean towards thinking the club will go in for Leroy Sané who can do both of these things and offer something different.
- If there was an offensive frustration it was that there were multiple runs made especially by Saka behind their defence and the ball was not played. I was really encouraged that Saka was doing this as he needed to do this for quite a while and not always want the ball to his feet. I also noticed that Saka needs to complete his runs off the ball as he often went 70% and I think that the passer was discouraged and disbelieving in Saka’s commitment to the run.
I hope that’s Orlando City get a new stadium announcer. Here are some of the pronunciations he gave to our players who he had clearly not studied.
- Cedric Soda, Eddie Nikkyer, Martinilly and I swear that Orlando brought on a chap called Pumpkin Belly in the second half. I could be wrong about Cedric Soda, but it was hard to tell because he growled everybody’s surname. The fans were rather odd also. When Arsenal scored the second goal and it was 2–1, there were bucket loads of them walking out of the stadium. It was still a 1 goal game with half an hour left and it is a preseason friendly and you are playing against one of the world’s most prestigious clubs. How do you walk out?? Even more bizarre was their chanting. I am aware, as I live over here, that the chanting is not as creative as the British teams. Their most common chant was “F.U. Arsenal.” Not only was that out of context at a preseason friendly but they had no reason to sing it as we were not playing outside the rules or upsetting them in any way. Very odd.
- It was great to see Zinchenko at the game, but I thought that the club missed a trick. It would have done his self-esteem an awful lot of good if they would have brought him out at half time to be introduced to the Arsenal fans. There is much excitement around this signing, and not only would it have boosted his confidence but being a very nice gesture for a young man who is still likely struggling with the war in his homeland.
- Why was Raul Sanhelli in the directors’ box sitting next to the owners?
You will see in the pictures in today’s piece that we met some Arsenal legends before the game. I have to say that talking at length with John Williamson was a treat. I know many of you know John and would agree what a true gentleman he is. Very few work as long and as hard as Mike Feinberg for Arsenal in America. He is everywhere and his passion is infectious and his love for life too.
Had great chats with David Illif and Mark Mertz too. Such nice guys!
Incredible coincidence to meet Luke Parker in a restaurant thousands of miles away from Tring and find out we lived in the same town.
It was such a joy to have two of my kids with me and Maxwell and EllieAnn absolutely loved the day. They haven’t been fortunate enough to go to home game at the Emirates in their life yet and we hope to do that this season. I think that they were amazed at the intensity of love that they saw and felt.
Well, it is 2:25 AM and I have got to get up early to fly to North Carolina to watch The Dave Matthews Band with my wife. A different type of fun.
I’ll leave you with a quote from my son Max who simply does not understand why Arsenal persist with Nuno Tavares.
“I don’t know about Nuno staying on, Dad. He can’t defend when he is fresh let alone when he is tired. And he needs to go to shooting camp too.”
I hope to get back to podcasting for Saturday’s game but it’s too late tonight. Thanks so much for reading!
Former Highbury regular. Moved to TN, USA in ’99. Married with 3 kids. Coached in UK and US for 27 years.
Mike McDonald Soccer Academy in Morristown TN, Olympic Development coach, Regional Premier League Champion.