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 By Tom Adams

Arsenal have done nothing to disprove those who question their character

Jack Wilshere's rebuttal of Troy Deeney's withering character assassination of Arsenal was typically spiky, but it was clear from the tone of the response that the Watford player had landed a stinging blow with his gleefully and publicly expressed belief that Arsenal are missing a set of "cojones."

Speaking to the press ahead of Thursday's Europa League meeting with Red Star Belgrade, Wilshere earnestly insisted that, "you can't question our character." Yet Deeney, enthusiastically, did, and he is far from the first to do so. The question of whether Arsenal lack the necessary inner strength to thrive at the very top level has been asked persistently over the past decade.

In a sense, it is a question which cannot be definitively answered. Deeney was effectively accusing Arsenal of lacking bottle, lacking the necessary fortitude to engage in a physical battle. It was his belief that Arsenal shrink in the face of such intimidation. Mental frailty manifesting in physical cowardice. 

This is not the same as saying Arsenal don't score enough goals or they concede too many from set pieces. It is not a tangible, measurable quality -- although Granit Xhaka's abysmal defending for Tom Cleverley's injury-time winner for Watford, as he merely stood idly by and watched as the midfielder loitered in space on the edge of the box before scoring, is about as close as you can get to incontrovertible physical evidence that Arsenal simply don't want it enough. 

Still, Deeney's comments struck at the heart of what it means to be a footballer, and, through his evocative use of Spanish, what it means to be a man. It was a challenge to Arsenal's collective masculinity as much as it was their personality, which is probably why Wilshere sounded so hurt. "As a player if your attitude is questioned, it's horrible," he added.

Mesut Ozil is one Arsenal player who often comes under fire from fans for 'not caring enough'.

But though Deeney's provocative language made the headlines, forcing Wilshere on the defensive, another player touched on a similar theme -- albeit expressed in a rather less inflammatory way. And that player was none other than Arsenal's captain, Per Mertesacker. "We have to admit at the end that they wanted it more," Mertesacker said at the weekend. "The second half they were all attack and we were timid."

It was a quite extraordinary admission, but it wasn't even the first time such a comment had emanated from within the Arsenal camp in the past six months. Back in April, following a catastrophically poor 3-0 defeat to Crystal Palace, Theo Walcott sparked outrage when admitting, "I think they just wanted it more. You could tell they wanted it more and you could sense that from kick-off."

It was even enough to earn a rebuke from Wenger, who said Walcott's comments were "not acceptable". But now Mertesacker's almost identical assessment seems to have passed unnoticed. It is almost as though it is now an accepted truth. Whether it is due to motivation or some deeper flaw of character, Arsenal, consistently, want it less than their opponents. That is more than the loss of a slim competitive edge, it means that results like the 2-1 loss to Watford, indeed have happened time and time again.

Wilshere may have bristled at Deeney's assessment but even Arsenal admit they are afflicted by this problem. The key question is whether they can change. Again, there is no simple answer, at least from the outside. Maybe there is work a sports psychologist could do; maybe they just need a good shouting at on the training ground.

But the suspicion is that this is another of the persistent, recurring problems that stem from the manager, immovable as he is. Another one of the issues which swirl around Arsenal relentlessly; correctable, yet forever holding them back.

Tom is one of ESPN FC's Arsenal bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @tomEurosport


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