Dec 282008

When considering what changes could and should be made in January, there are a few obvious deficiencies, but one of the most infuriating things about the current malaise is that when you look around the team, the individual ability on display is actually excellent. The defence, for example, contains Sagna, who is among the best full backs in the league, Gallas, who was a lynchpin in Chelsea’s mean rearguard, Silvestre, winner of so much at United, Toure, fantastic for us in the past, and Clichy, who has made us not miss Ashley Cole one bit.

So how come they can’t stop conceding ridiculous goals? It isn’t experience – that quintet has that in abundance. A lack of support from midfield isn’t helping, but they have the ability and the know how not to be making the individual errors we are seeing time and time again.

I think it comes down to mental strength. When you look around the team that started against Villa, it is hard to know where the inspiration and drive will come from. Who has the mental fortitude to instill the sort of pride we saw in the last half an hour against Liverpool?

Out of eleven players, you’d expect at least half to have steel up top, and indeed when you look at our rivals the number is usually seven or eight. So what of our Villa eleven?

Almunia – Check. He actually acts as a captain, yelling at his players and organising defensive set plays. He also seems to be one of the only players that cares about a clean sheet.

Sagna – Check. A shining light in our defence this season, although my fading Christmas lights would shine amongst some of the current crop.

Toure – Debatable. Two years ago you would say yes, but seems short on confidence and perhaps health after his bout of malaria, and looks a shadow of the player he was, in body and mind. Used to tear around the pitch and has lost that too.

Gallas – No. Strong in all the wrong ways, but again makes schoolboy decisions as he did to concede a penalty on Boxing Day.

Silvestre – No. Surely should be yes, but so far has shown none of the leading by example and experience that so long at Old Trafford should’ve allowed. Looks to have been carried at United.

Song – No, although it might develop. One of the few members of the team who wants to defend, but is too lackadaisical to be called mentally strong.

Diaby – Partially. An unflustered individual, which suggests internal strength, and I don’t think he is as lazy as he looks, his running gait sometimes giving the impression of lethargy. His celebration also suggested the goal really mattered.

Denilson – Yes-ish. Has a little bit of small man syndrome about him, and can put himself about. Unfortunately, he also switches off, but that may be a youth problem rather than one of fortitude.

Nasri – Yes. Like Denilson, he switches off, but has shown already that he’s up for the fight of the Premiership and can perform in the big games (two goals against United and thatpass against Liverpool). I have no worries about Nasri.

Eboue – Er, no.

Van Persie – Partly. Strong in determination, but also a little hot headed, which came up against Liverpool again, when I thought he was going to get himself sent off any moment. But he is a player for the big stage, and once he focuses his spikiness properly, he could be the complete article.

So out of eleven, I’d say Almunia and Sagna are the only ones with the complete mental package, while Van Persie, Nasri and Toure have either had it or will have it again. The rest are a bit flaky in the mind.

And therein lies our problem. Sure, the team missed Clichy, Cesc and Eduardo, who are also of the right mindset, but there just aren’t enough leaders out there, enough players to take the game by the scruff of the neck and make the difference. Too often the buck is passed to others, and too often to Cesc in particular. Now that he is injured, others have to step up.

Today is a great chance to do that. Adebayor returns against a Portsmouth team who looked even leakier than us on Boxing Day. Clichy may be fit too, while Djourou is an unknown.

And how apt it is that just as our mental fragility is exposed once again, one of the most inspirational leaders in our club’s history returns as opposing manager. I hope Tony Adams gets a great reception, and then sees his team get stuffed.

Enjoy the game.

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