Every week Diego Simeone was asked the same question, each week and after every game from the start of the season up until the winter break in Spain the Atletico Madrid manager was asked if his team were title contenders. Every week he batted the question away. Simeone dismissed such talk; La Liga is a boring league, he continued to say. And yet after every dismissal of their title credentials, Atletico continued to win, keeping pace with league-leaders Barcelona and keeping an up until now decent distance from Real Madrid.
The Atletico manager’s response changed slightly, but only for a moment. He was looking now at how far his side had come in the season and he was now talking about the title, though not as much as many would have hoped.
It’s the underdog mentality that Simeone wanted. He didn’t want his players, perfectly capable, to get carried away by expectation and pressure. Whether they could do it is one thing; Simeone, however, didn’t want to entertain the idea. At least not before the time was right.
Despite being top of the table, Arsenal remain underdogs to win the Premier League title this season, behind favourites Manchester City and Chelsea. And much like the case with Atletico, this should suit Arsenal until the end of the season.
You have to stop for a moment and question how much you can compare the current Arsenal to that of the past few years. The old Arsenal would have buckled under pressure, going into a must-win game, even against lowly opposition, and failing to perform. When the pressure was off, as we’ve seen in matches against better teams in the past, Arsenal normally came away with a surprise win and at times a performance that contradicted their underachieving place in the league.
But a lack of pressure from outside can be a good thing. It won’t be lost on the Arsenal squad what’s required of them to end the trophy drought this season. Very few outside of Arsenal are tipping them to land the Premier League title. If they don’t, there shouldn’t be any accusations of poor mental strength, a lack of ability or whatever else may be thrown the club’s way. They would have finished where most expected them to. Without the pressure from outside, the fall, if silverware isn’t attained, is shorter.
Arsene Wenger, however, will keep the team going until the end. It would be remiss of him as manager to sit back on what he and the team have and call it a job well done. It’s also not in his nature to give up, even if some of the events of the past suggest so.
Even with the signing of Mesut Ozil in the summer and the dramatic improvements in some of the other members of the squad, this Arsenal team isn’t complete. It’s lacking depth in one or two areas, and of course there have critics citing the lack of mental toughness in big games.
But it suits Arsenal. The focus is currently on what Manchester City and Chelsea can do. Talk of City winning the quadruple is a good thing. It means Arsenal can get on, relatively quietly, with what they’ve been doing.