Quite possibly the world's scariest Belgian, not smiling. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
If there is one criticism of Arsenal over the last five seasons that has remained more or less the same, it is that the team, for any number of reasons, lacks some kind of steel or sand or spine or what have you. The prevailing theory popularized in with the lack of silver starting in 2005-06 is that, post-Vieira, Arsenal had nobody who scared the piss out of the opposition. No bullies, no brutes, no snarling monsters. That may work for those lily-livers in Spain or Italy, but this is the EPL, for goodness' sake; Bolton is going to roll through and stomp the Gunners. Blackburn is going to kick those poor boys up in the air, easily enough too, since none of them look to weigh more than ten stone.
But: what was this quality the supporters wanted? Did they really want Arsenal to be more like Bolton?
The cries went up all across Arsenaldom over the next few years: buy! buy! buy! Buy Reo-Cokers and Canas! Buy Micah Richards, buy Curtis Davies, buy Olaf Mellberg! Inspect the beard, look at the teeth, look for the pedigree. Ask to see the feet; ask to smell the breath.
What is grit? Can it be measured, or not? Is it invisible, or is it as plain as day?
Arsenal have players who tackle quite excellently (e.g. Song, Vermaelen, Gallas, Sagna), and players who will never stop fighting. Determination, of course, proves elusive, and changes from game to game; contrast the first leg vs. Barcelona with the Wigan game, for example. Individual players who contributed to one of the greatest fightbacks in club history were on the field for one of the worst concessions. Everyone can have a bad day. Or can they? Is grit defined by never allowing oneself to slip up? By overcoming any adversity, even internal? Arsenal have scored more goals in the last 15 minutes of matches this year than any other EPL club. They have scored numerous winners in those minutes, including in deep stoppage time.
Grit is changeable; miss in the 93rd minute, and one doesn't have it. Score, and one does. Give up a goal, and one doesn't. The emergence of players like Song and Diaby this year seemed based partly on newfound grit, but mainly on skill. Nasri showed that he wouldn't back down from a challenge either. And frankly, Thomas Vermaelen frightens me; even when he scores, his smile seems like the smile of the executioner.
I would argue that what Arsenal lack at the moment, as a team, is 90% mental, and as they mature, they will find that they have the belief and the desire to put in any last-ditch block. In Song and Vermaelen, there is a hard core forming at the back that will only get craggier as the years roll down. Cesc is changing from a skill-laden attacking midfielder to a more complete player, still able to shred the opposition, but also willing to fight and tackle and scrap, armband and all. I think it is too easy to say that Arsenal require an enforcer and all will come good. But that's the thing about steel: one can't mine for it. One has to forge it with heat, skill, and patience. That is probably overblown, but also probably worth remembering in light of Arsenal's ongoing youth.
Can these youngsters find graft as they mature over the next three years? And will it be enough? I think they can, and it will. And who knows. Beards might help.