Nov 13 ― Al Davis, the legendary former owner of the Oakland Raiders American Football team who passed away last year, had a famous three-word saying that neatly encapsulates the mentality of successful sporting teams: “Just win, baby”.
Davis’ catchphrase, which became a mantra for his three-time Superbowl-winning teams during the 1970s and 80s, was a perfect description of what good teams do.
They just win: they don’t necessarily have the best players, they don’t always perform at their best, they don’t always deserve what they get, but they have a habit of clinching unlikely victories borne out of an unshakeable belief that they can somehow “just win.”
The winning mentality was demonstrated by a number of title-contending teams in the English Premier League and Spanish Primera Division this weekend.
Manchester United again recovered from a two-goal deficit to record a 3-2 victory at Aston Villa and stay top of the table thanks to a late winner from Javier Hernandez, while reigning champions Manchester City once more relied on the last-minute heroics of supersub Edin Dzeko to beat Tottenham 2-1.
In Spain, Barcelona found themselves with a precarious 3-2 lead at Mallorca early in the second half but held their nerve and benefitted from the magic of Messi to run out 4-2 winners.
And Real Madrid, playing almost in a swimming pool in ridiculous rainy conditions against Levante, picked up a 2-1 win thanks to a late goal from a set piece converted by youngster Alvaro Morata.
None of those four teams played particularly well; all of them won. Not because they deserved it, but because their collective will and belief allowed them to gain the result that the majority of other teams in their position simply wouldn’t. The best teams simply find a way to win.
Conversely, the underachieving teams, those that don’t maximise their potential, are the ones that find a way not to win games that they should.
Arsenal have been expert exponents of this particular failing for a number of years now, and Arsene Wenger’s hapless side were at it again on Saturday, firstly throwing away a 2-0 advantage at home against Fulham and then missing a last-minute penalty to ensure they had to settle for an unsatisfactory 3-3 draw.
Chelsea, I believe, are also in that category without the leadership that was provided for years by Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard and John Terry.
After their impressive results at the start of the season, the Blues’ bubble now seems to have burst and points are being dropped on a regular basis. At home against a Luis Suarez-inspired Liverpool on Sunday, the Blues allowed their visitors to snatch a point from a game that they barely were a factor in as an attacking force.
Of course, a lot of the reason why the big teams win more games is because they’ve got better players: Barcelona have Lionel Messi, Madrid are inspired by Cristiano Ronaldo, United can call upon Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie while City have the services of Sergio Aguero and Yaya Toure. They are the best players in the world, so of course they win more games than other teams.
There are also many exceptional results and one of the beauties of football is that the better team, the team with the most talented players and the strongest belief, doesn’t always win ― as illustrated by Barcelona’s defeat against Celtic on Wednesday. Barcelona have superior ability to Celtic and an unquenchable will to win, but they still lost.
However, it’s unmistakably true that the winning mentality allows certain teams to get results which leave you wondering: “How on earth did they do that?”
For the last couple of decades no team has better demonstrated the “Just win, baby” spirit than Manchester United, and Hernandez articulated his team’s never-say-die attitude after the game when he said: “We’ve never given up in the history of Manchester United. That’s what the gaffer and all the legends show you. You learn the game is 90 minutes, so you fight to the end.”
No other team possesses such an unshakeably strong self-belief as the Red Devils, and that is the main reason they are currently top of the league while Arsenal are currently eighth having not won anything since 2005.
I believe that Sir Alex Ferguson’s current squad is not very good: they have a number of players, including Hernandez, who would struggle to get into any of the other top six teams in the Premier League. But their total effectiveness is far greater than the sum of their parts because of the belief that allows them to claim unlikely victories like this weekend’s.
Winning is a combination of ability and collective will. United, Manchester City (in the Premier League but not yet in the Champions’ League), Barcelona and Real Madrid have both characteristics. Arsenal and Chelsea ― especially without John Terry ― do not.
And that can make all the difference between the also-rans and those that “just win, baby”.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.