If there was ever a doubt in your mind about the importance and impact of confidence on the way a team performs, Arsenal’s victory over Lincoln was the perfect case-in-point.
The Gunners have lurched from one debacle to the next in the last few months and, for the first 45 minutes of their FA Cup clash against Lincoln, they played exactly like a team that weighed down by enormous pressure and shorn of all confidence.
They were ponderous in possession, ushered into dead ends by their markers, and hassled and harried into making poor decisions.
What few chances they did create were either snuffed out or came to naught because the team were simply unwilling to play with the sort of tempo and daring that is required to break through a team set up simply to survive.
Then, with a little slice of luck, Theo Walcott saw a goal-bound shot deflected past the Lincoln goalkeeper and the match was turned almost immediately on its head. The confidence built up by the visitors in a pretty stoic 45 minutes dissipated in a heartbeat, while Arsenal at last remembered that they were a Premier League team playing a group of part-timers.
Suddenly the Gunners had something resembling confidence. Players hitherto shackled by self-doubt were set free and the result was the sort of performance that Arsene Wenger loves, the elusive Wenger Ball.
From the moment of the opening goal onwards, pockets of space were appeared where none existed before, players were moving with the sort of fluidity that makes them a nightmare for defenders, and the passers among the team were finding their targets with stunning accuracy. It was a remarkable turnaround.
Of course, as the game progressed, Lincoln were always likely to tire and so it proved. They simply couldn’t keep pace with Arsenal after the break and the Gunners made hay.
But there was more to it than simply taking advantage of knackered opponent, the team started to play with the sort of freedom that makes them such a devastating attacking force. Mesut Ozil was the epitome of that, pulling the strings from deep and picking the sort of passes that made him so crucial last season.
Attacking players were finding space again, they were making ambitious runs and eluding their markers, they were running beyond the lines in a way that pulls teams out of formation. In short, they were doing all the right things, the things that Arsene wants them to do week-in and week-out.
If the manager could take the spirit and fluidity of that second half and bottle it, ready to be opened whenever he needed it, he would be in the job for the rest of his life. His greatest failing of the last five years is that he hasn’t been able to coax that level of performance out of his team regularly enough, or when it has been most needed.
Smart teams have learned down the years that denying Arsenal the sort of space and time afforded to them in the second half against Lincoln blunts their ability to hurt but it is a difficult thing to sustain for 90 minutes. It requires the sort of patience, organisation, and effort that only the very best can expend for any great length of time and even then the slightest lapse in concentration can prove costly.
If the team harbours any hopes of salvaging a strong end to the season, they have to take their second half performance and run with it. If they play that sort of football for 90 minutes in every game for the remainder of this campaign, they’ll win more than they draw or lose, there’s no doubt about that.
But, in order for it to work, the team must believe they can do it, they must have confidence in their style of football and their ability to make it work. They must be able to focus and work as hard and as long as the opposition. If they do that, they can recapture their winning form.
Although the win over Lincoln was not the 90-minute performance many had wanted to see, it did prove that the ability to turn it on remains within the team.
They must take heart from victory – and the reward of another trip to Wembley – and cling to it, remembering how it feels to win again.
It’s going to be a real scrap to emerge from this season with a top four place and some silverware. In both cases it’s going to require the best of this team from now until the end of the campaign. With any luck, the win over Lincoln will prove to be the end of a truly miserable two-month period and the beginning of what could well be a last hurrah for Arsene.
A hearty pat on the back for Theo Walcott who is well and truly on course for a 20-goal season. The Englishman has had something of a renaissance this year, driven by a renewed desire to make the most of his potential and his ability. He has shaken off the tag of disappearance specialist and is making sure he stays involved in attack and committed in defence.
If everyone in the squad had the sort of epiphany Theo has had, we would be in a much better place at the moment. Theo’s ability has never been in question, it’s his mentality and desire which have let him down in the past but he has shown this season that hard work and, indeed, confidence can be so important.
This was always going to be a crucial campaign for Theo and, to his credit, he has gone a long way to proving his doubters wrong.