Arsenal's loss to Bradford: A meaningless defeat for a meaningless team

Laurence Griffiths

Arsenal's defeat last night didn't actually mean anything, but a psychological blow is never a good thing for such a mentally weak side.

Among the haze of the floodlights and frozen breath, the cheers and celebrations of Bradford players and fans, the tears of joy and sadness, the dread-filled trudge off the pitch towards an ill-mannered dressing room, team-talk, and press-conference, the mockery, the furious headlines, the Piers Morgan retweets and the general despondency and elation, it's easy to have failed to spot something fairly important about Arsenal's defeat at the hands of the mighty Bradford City last night - it doesn't mean anything.

In the coldest of lights, Arsene Wenger's biggest regret will probably that he fielded a full-strength team, tiring them out for the weekend - that's how little it means. The Carling Cup is the trophy no big club wants, an achievement that carries about as much prestige as being Foursquare mayor of your local Chinese restaurant. Nobody knows quite when it suffered such a fall from grace. Some claim it was when squad rotation led to a collection of kids and unwanted carthorses being fielded. Some claim it was with the birth of the Premier League and all its glamour and riches. My dad claims it was when West Brom won it in 1966. However we got here, the truth is that it doesn't matter.

There's a lot of consternation about this obviously true viewpoint, which usually centres around the following: "Look at those Bradford players and tell us it means nothing." "The whole point of football is to win trophies in the first place, not celebrate fourth place like it's a great triumph!" And if you're feeling particularly cruel, "This could be a route into the Europa League for Arsenal." This is nonsense, of course - Arsenal do want to be winning trophies, but they don't want to be winning this trophy. They want to be finishing fourth because of the future glamour and adventure of European away trips it brings, and the hope of eventually jumping up and down on some sponsored plywood at the end of the season, not standing next to an unwanted pot that screams mediocrity.

There is one other point to be made, however, that has some more weight. When Jose Mourinho guided Chelsea to a League Cup win in 2005, he made the point that a trophy win early on was important to build a winning mentality. Brian Clough would've agreed. Success breeds hunger for further success, inspiring a winning streak an an ingrained determination as exemplified by the likes of Manchester United. That's the theory, at least.

It follows that no other team is more in need of a dose of winning mentality than Arsenal at the moment, and in assuming that you gain a winning mentality by winning trophies, there we spot the vicious circle on the horizon - Arsenal can't win trophies because they don't have a winning mentality, but they can't get a winning mentality because they can't win trophies. For all the popular psychology, the practical advice on offer is about as much use as "try to score more goals than the other team."

It's not as if Arsenal didn't try to win. They fielded a full-strength side and still lost. They also tried against Birmingham City, and lost. They've tried to win it every single year - some years harder than others, admittedly, but that mental weakness has always prevented them. There is no other explanation as to why they continually miss such metaphorical open goals (and in the case of Gervinho, literal ones.)

Arsenal may think they're going through an identity crisis at the moment, but it has lasted an awful long time, and the view from outside the club and its fans may not agree - the defeat only backs up their persona of perennial bottlers. A personality transplant is long overdue for this team, and the longer it takes, the more disasters like last night will become commonplace. They're beginning to look like a rich man's Wigan - yes, they qualify for the Champions League every year, but they never threaten to win it. They don't do anything - they're just there, making the place look untidy.

Yet when the mist has cleared, it will be remembered that last night's defeat was a purely psychological one, a PR exercise. Good news for Arsenal? Not quite. A fabled 'winning team' would use a defeat to turn their fortunes around, hitting rock-bottom like an alcoholic and bouncing back with a run of victories. Arsene Wenger used to be very good at getting teams to do this, before he built a squad that was even better at using them as excuses to hide, cower, and retreat. A defeat that only affects your mentality can't be shrugged off when you have a team so lacking in backbone.


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