This interview originally featured in the September 2015 edition of the Arsenal Magazine.
“There is no question that this squad has the best team spirit and unity I have ever experienced in my career”
That’s what Mikel Arteta wrote in his first matchday programme captain’s notes of the season, after helping Arsenal pick up their fourth piece of silverware in 16 months.
Success is often linked to having a strong togetherness within the squad, but it can also be the most difficult quality to add to a team.
It’s clear that unity does not happen over night, so just how do managers foster a positive spirit within the team? Are clubs now spending time working on players’ mental strengths as well as their physical attributes?
We sat down with Arsène Wenger to discuss the value of a strong team spirit, and what the club is doing to enhance togetherness.
How important is team spirit in football?
You can ask the question the other way round: can you be successful without team spirit? If I asked you that question, straight away you would say no.
That just shows you how important it is. It’s difficult to put a percentage on it, but you know without it you have no chance.
Afterwards, what is interesting is to know how big the team spirit is. You can have different degrees of team spirit, because without it you have no football at all – everybody would just do what he wants. But how far can you go in cultivating and developing that team spirit? That’s our target.
We know that to have a chance of being successful, we want to be more of a team than any other team in the Premier League. Therefore, I believe it’s a little bit like a flower.
"I think we have the values here within the club that transmits that message to the players from a very young age"
You have to take care of it and look after it every day, or else it will slowly die. But as well, you can make the flower, bigger, better and prettier if you care for it.
We believe that part of the responsibility of the players and the staff is to take care of team spirit. It’s of course about communication, about tolerance, understanding and also it’s about being conscious that a good team spirit is vital if you want to be successful.
I think we have the values here within the club that transmits that message to the players from a very young age. It can be developed when you have players who grow up together too, because it’s about trust.
If I’m a player, when I’m on a football pitch I know that if I need you, I can trust you. That makes me stronger.
It’s about personality as well because when you are in the dressing room and you look left, then you look right, you know you are in there together and everybody is there to support you.
That’s vital, of course. So when you ask how important is team spirit, I would say it’s vital, but to what degree can you push it? That’s what it’s about.
Does team spirit have to grow naturally> Or can you enhance it artificially?
Artificially, certainly not. It is natural because we have footballers who have been educated this way in the team.
So without being conscious of it, he develops his quality of integrating into a team, because very early in their careers, the youth team coaches will tell them, “No, no, that’s not right, you are part of a team.”
So we all grow up with that team spirit, but after, we see how far we can push it, to make the unit stronger.
We often say that the whole is bigger than the addition of the individuals, but that happens only when the team spirit is developed. Team spirit is also to share the style of play and to develop that.
Then the players meet their needs individually, but also feel strong as a unit because they all feel the same vision of the game. They share the support in difficult moments, and that makes them stronger too. We have just come out of the West Ham defeat.
We will see how well everyone supports each other in difficult moments, because a team is also about how do you respond to difficult moments. Unfortunately during the season you will have defeats, and that’s when you require a togetherness, to get you out of it.
It's difficult to measure team spirit, but how can you tell when something's not right, for example?
You just feel it, in training, when everybody is not on board, the whole energy coming out of the team is not as strong as you are used to. When you are used to dealing with groups, you can feel when the belief and confidence has gone down.
In our job it’s like you have an engine that doesn’t work. You can see that it’s not working, but then you have to find what piece of the system is blocking it. That’s important for us.
Sometimes it’s linked to desire and urgency, sometimes it’s because of confidence or belief. For us, the sensitive part is to identify what really is the issue there.
Sometimes the balance of the team isn’t right, so the difficulty for us is to identify where it isn’t going right if something doesn’t work. You need to find that to get the team spirit back.
Have you ever had a team or a group of player where you felt the team spirit was not quite right, and if so, what have you done about that?
You always have periods, every year, where you feel it isn’t quite right, because maybe the energy level is not there. The team spirit strengthens the collective energy.
If the collective vibes and energy coming out of the team is not right, then you know that you have a problem somewhere, and then you have to find out how to fix that.
Sometimes it is to get rid of a player. Sometimes you strengthen a team by getting one out because he has negative energy.
You look at the history and every year you have to find out where it is blocked, where it doesn’t work, where is there an interruption on the line.
It is sometimes down to footballing reasons, sometimes down to psychological reasons, but you have to find out.
Because it is intangible, do you feel that psychological issues are not always taken seriously by fans?
I agree with you because we can speak about the West Ham game. You come out of the game and maybe we were too confident having won all our pre-season games, then we had the Community Shield and picked up an early trophy.
Maybe we were too confident for the game and sometimes the confidence level can kill the urgency. This balance between urgency and belief has to always be right. When one is too high, sometimes it can kill the other. Maybe we were guilty of that against West Ham.
Do you believe that footballers have to get on with another off the pitch to be successful on it?
Yes I do. The general plan is to play in training like you do in the game, or even harder. But some days you do have to ease off completely and not have the intensity because you need to recover as well after games.
But basically you need to give the players the same intensity that they will face in a game.
Most clubs have a psychologist working with the team. What role do they play?
We believe we want people to be happy at the club. We want people to feel that we care about them and care about their individual state.
"I would say that the individual pressure the players are under is much bigger now and sometimes that pressure can individualise the behaviour a little bit more"
The values we want to transmit to our players are important and therefore we believe that it’s important to have a mental support as well.
Some players go through periods during the season where it goes less well for them and they need the support to help them.
Nowadays if anyone has a big accident, straight away you have a psychologist who turns up to help people go through a difficult moment.
So top-level sportsmen, with the stress they have, they need support sometimes.
Is football behind other sports in that respect?
It is certainly the last aspect that football has worked on, but it’s getting there.
When Glenn Hoddle brought in Eileen Drewery, a faith healer, to work with the England team in 1998, it wasen't universally accepted by the players...
Yes, Glenn Hoddle had someone, he understood that it was a very important aspect to concentrate on. There was maybe more reluctance at the time than there is today.
Is football becoming less of a team sport now, because of the cult of the celebrity and the rise of social media? Is it harder to integrate a team now than previously?
Well, I would say that the individual pressure the players are under is much bigger now and sometimes that pressure can individualise the behaviour a little bit more.
We are here to remind them that it’s about the team. It is true that the external individual pressure is becoming much bigger and yes, sometimes that can push people to have a more individual attitude.
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