Montemurro: ‘It isn’t all jolly and happy’

Arsenal boss says restrictions of the pandemic present many challenges to team bonding – and reveals how his players are adapting

Thursday, 28th January 2021 — By Catherine Etoe

Joe Montemurro IMG_2274 credit Arsenal FC

Arsenal manager Joe Montemurro, who says his squad are ‘an amazing group’, has praised their unity. PHOTO: ARSENAL FC

HOW do you build team spirit when your players can’t socialise with each other away from the pitch? Maybe it sounds like a frivolous question, given that we are all making sacrifices during this ongoing pandemic.

Yet it seems that the human cost of lockdown is a live issue in football and its extent at Arsenal was laid bare on Saturday in an online press conference with manager Joe Montemurro.

Arsenal’s men may have been losing to Southampton as he logged on, but the lifelong Gooner was chirpy as he sat down to discuss the impending visit of West Ham in the Women’s Super League.

Montemurro’s professionals had just turned in a lively training session and he was, perhaps, buoyed by the novel thought that he had a full squad to choose from for the first time in a long time.

But then Arseblog’s Tim Stillman raised the issue of Covid protocols and the Arsenal boss spoke frankly of their impact on his players.

Mask wearing, social distancing, shortened team presentations, no impromptu tactical discussions after training, no team meals and even playing in empty stadiums have added a layer of stress, he explained.

But a group that the Australian described as the best he has worked with, in terms of unity, have also lost a more social element too.

This is, he revealed, a group that spends time together in restaurants and cafés. They car share and meet for coffee – and Montemurro has had to try to look for other ways to build that bond.

“I’d be lying if I said it was all happy and jolly,” the Arsenal manager told the Tribune.

“It’s so hard because you’re fabricating a lot of things that are natural.

“Going for a coffee, going for dinners, on Saturday nights a lot of the girls would go out and have a meal together before the Sunday game, things like that which are natural.”

In their place are online trivia games run by the staff and an attempt to make training more fun-packed.

“The other thing is just to be available if they want to talk or chat,” Montemurro added.

“It’s just put a lot of stress on everyone.”

The controversy that blew up after three players took their festive break in Dubai, one of them later testing positive for Covid-19, will hardly have helped. Neither will the 1-1 draw to Reading in their only league match of 2021 so far.

But Montermurro, who describes his team as “an amazing group” says he tries not to add to their burden when results do not go their way.

He said: “[I try] to keep a perspective on things, getting them focused on the next game and making sure that we get back to what we know is good, the way we play, the enjoyment of football.”

Speaking to our paper earlier this week, January signing Anna Patten echoed her manager’s words.

The 21-year-old defender has returned to the club after four years away at university in America and while she already feels part of the group, she acknowledged that these are testing times.

“You come in and you want to get to know everyone a lot more and it’s harder to do that. Really your only time to have a chat is during training and that’s when it’s time to work hard,” she said.

“I do feel like I’ve slotted back into the team very comfortably, but it would have been so much nicer to really be able to bond with the team off the pitch. But everyone has had to adapt and they’re all very welcoming.”

As for Montemurro, who joined Arsenal in 2017, there is refuge in “lots of coffees” and his love of the game.

“I’m in exactly the same position as a lot of people out there,” he said.

“It’s a matter of trying to sit back and be rational about the situation and where we’re at, and really go back to the love and the beauty of the game.”

As it turned out, snow froze out the beautiful game for Arsenal and the rest of the WSL’s London-based teams at the weekend.

Emma Hayes’ Chelsea were back in action last night (Wednesday), a 4-0 win over Aston Villa taking the Blues back to the top of the table, and setting a new WSL record of 32 games unbeaten in the process.

This Sunday, Chelsea host Spurs on the BBC Red Button at 12.30pm and Arsenal’s away tie with Aston Villa is on The FA Player at 2pm.

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