Can teams like Arsenal and Manchester City be affected by nightmares of the past?

By Tom Simmonds.

There’s nothing in my dreams, just some ugly memories: Can past defeats have an unconscious effect on present players?

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Amy Lawrence’s book Invincible, which documents Arsenal’s unbeaten 2003-04 Premier League season, contains a conversation with Arsene Wenger that takes an intriguing turn. Speaking of Atletico Madrid’s 4-1 defeat to Real Madrid in last season’s Champions League final, Wenger invokes its 1974 counterpart, which also involved Los Colchoneros, and which they also lost (after a replay) 4-1. Bayern Munich triumphed on that occasion after, like Real in 2014, scoring a last-minute equaliser in the original tie.

Wenger said: “I hope it was not a subconscious thing for the team to repeat the history. That is what you discover – the huge importance of the subconscious language is in people’s minds.”

When The Offside Rule (We Get It!) asked Lawrence if she felt Wenger’s views had merit, she responded: “I do kind of agree with him, but I’m no expert in matters of psychology. He certainly thinks it has some powerful nuances.”
If Lawrence is tentative in throwing her lot in with Wenger, there is no doubt as to whose camp Wenger is in. Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, wrote in Totem and Taboo in 1913 that “an unconscious understanding … of all the customs, ceremonies and dogmas left behind …may have made it possible for later generations to take over their heritage of emotion”.

When Wenger tells Lawrence “I am sure before the game they have spoken so much about [the 1974 final]”, he is invoking a psychoanalytic idea that even those who did not directly experience negative events can suffer from them as part of their psychic inheritances.

Transferring this idea to football, when we look at the fabric of clubs, their key foundations are supporters and stalwart volunteers/employees. These are the soul and conscience of any club, and it is in here that tribal knowledge is held, either through memory or elders communicating those memories to their descendants.

It, therefore, follows that supporter anxiety has the potential to transmit itself to players. My own club’s abysmal record in the play-offs from 1991 onward was forever invoked by supporters right up until the final whistle of the 2009/10 League One final, when we finally managed to get promoted through them at the sixth attempt.

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Every club will have their own example of this, whether it be the fatalistic ‘Typical City’ that Manchester City fans still use in their now rare moments of defeat, or talk of specific bogey teams/grounds to the point where mediocre opposition can assume the dimensions of Brazil’s 1970 team in supporters’ minds.

These anxieties can be overcome, as Millwall’s 2010 play-off win and, for example, Rochdale’s promotion in 2010 after 36 seasons in the league’s basement division, prove. Good management can reverse negative cultures, and these examples show that we cannot see fan neurosis as the sole cause of repeat defeats.

Stephen Frosh writes in his book Hauntings: Psychoanalysis and Ghostly Transmissions: “To be haunted is more than to be affected by what others tell us directly … it is to be influenced by a kind of inner voice that cannot be excised.”

It is here where Wenger’s viewpoint most powerfully couples with psychoanalytic thought. Wenger’s observation that Atleti’s could have unconsciously doomed themselves to defeat in 2014, despite their defiant campaign to win La Liga in the same season, recognises the nuance that history’s hand weighing heavy does not always equal a culture of defeat at a club. Whatever the underlying factors, be they history or an unspoken inferiority complex born of past defeat, pecking orders and Real’s own storied history in the UCL, it is fascinating to consider the non-physical actions which might affect results.

As with many of his ideas, clubs would do well to look at Wenger’s words and see if a psychodynamic examination of their cultures could help them achieve that “extra 1 per cent” that so many managers bang on about these days.

What do you think of Wenger’s view that unconscious factors can influence results? Does your club have a hurdle they just can’t get over? Who are your club’s bogey team?

Follow @tallulahonearth

Read more from Tom Simmonds here!

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