It’s not the midfield or maybe it is the midfield but it’s probably all about the fact that we can’t really win

Good morning.

First on diving. Arsene Wenger has, rightly, highlighted diving ahead of the North London Derby on Saturday and said that we need to kick the English Scourge of diving out of football.

Here’s how all this started: Harry Kane, Erik Lamela, and Dele Alli all dived (dove?) in their 2-2 win over Liverpool. The journalists asked Pochettino what he thought of diving and Poch responded with something about how tricking your opponent is good. Then the same journalists asked Arsene Wenger what he thought of Pochettino’s answer and Wenger said, I think Englishmen are the masters of diving, and now we have FARGIN WAR*!

Here’s the reality: Pochettino’s Spurs have a 21 year old player named Dele Alli who has been booked 7 times for simulation. That’s pretty incredible. Not only that but Harry Kane admitted that he dived to win the penalty against Liverpool saying that he felt contact and he went down. Spurs dive a lot and their manager seems to think that’s OK.

Look, lots of players dive. If you want to get rid of diving (which I think would be keen) you just need to ban players who dive, regardless of their nationality. Wenger also offered a simple test (one which I have been banging on about for about 10 years now) to tell if a player dives: did he kick the ball away and then hang his feet out there to draw the contact and make it seem like he was fouled? Yeah, it’s a dive. You see this every weekend. Two or three times.

It’s cheating, pure and simple. The only thing I will say is that all of this attention on diving means that the referees this weekend will be extra alert and that just means that Aubameyang is probably going to get a yellow card for getting his legs kicked out from under him. We know for a fact – because the FA didn’t punish Kane for that egregious dive against Liverpool but did punish Lanzini – the only people who get punished for diving in England are the non-English players.

The other article making the rounds this morning is Barney Ronay’s explosive new piece about the role of the number 8 in modern football. Barney asks “what are they supposed to be doing” and then gives us this answer “they are a generation of lost boys but they also deserve our sympathy, maybe, except Ramsey who scored a hattrick because he was lucky to be playing Everton who didn’t care about anything in midfield”.

There is no new “number 8” role. The 8 has always been asked to pass, to move, to tackle, block passes, intercept the ball, move the ball forward, cover space in defense and also to score some goals. The problem is that teams like Arsenal, Liverpool, and even Man U don’t have the personnel or structure to cover for number 8s who go forward. And also these clubs want to score tons of goals. You want to see tons of goals, right?

At Arsenal, Ramsey is often the most forward player on the pitch – many times even getting in the way of the striker receiving the ball. His cover is Xhaka, who has a number of skills but covering midfield defensively is not one of them. Ramsey also isn’t a creative player, he’s not a Mkhitaryan or an Ozil. He plays as both a midfielder and as another striker. That’s awesome when it works and frustrating when it doesn’t. And that’s really the entirety of Barney Ronay’s piece.

And when Arsenal have time to get back into shape, he is a fantastic number 8 in terms of tackling. Arsenal’s problem though isn’t Ramsey it’s that Arsenal also have a number of players, like Ozil, and Arsenal’s other forwards, who just aren’t asked to play defense. And Arsenal tend to throw both fullbacks forward at the same time. It’s all out attack, and Arsenal do it regardless of game state – against Everton, Arsenal were 3-0 up and still bombing forward to get more goals, leaving acres of space for Theo Walcott.

For some Arsenal supporters, Ramsey gets the blame here, but he is doing exactly what Wenger wants him to do – “[Ramsey] is not afraid to tackle but he likes to go in the box and he has a good timing of runs and he wants the ball and he wants to go forward. If you take that out of him, and you say ‘look, you have to sit now, and sit there and wait,’ you kill his strengths.” Thus, the problem at Arsenal is that the manager wants them to play this way – he prioritizes scoring. Hardly something we should blame Ramsey for and not even “redefining” the role. Wenger just wants him to play that way.

Liverpool have the same problem. Like Arsenal, they play with 4 forwards, bring everyone forward, and don’t have cover in midfield. Their CMs don’t get into the 6 yard box like Ramsey does but the basic problem of not having a speedy, intelligent defensive midfielder in a team where tons of players go forward and score goals for fun, has led to a panicky defense which makes mistakes.

Chelsea do have that speedy, intelligent, covering player and behold! They have one of the most solid defenses in the league (even if they looked pretty poor last weekend). Chelsea also don’t let Bakayoko or Kante just stand around inside the 6 yard box, but they do throw all the fullbacks forward which does leave them open. But Kante is so good that he covers well. It’s telling that they had an amazing defensive record while at the same time playing David Luiz. That’s how good Kante is.

Tottenham perhaps cover themselves the best in midfield. Their team, however, is blessed with Harry Kane who is both a great forward and a great diver. When you have a forward like Kane, you don’t need to send the CMs up to run around and cause trouble. They can all hang out and even Eric Dier can look like a decent midfielder rather than a lumbering oaf, because the system plays compact and players cover for each other. They play in a style very similar to the Arsenal way when Arsenal had both Cazorla and Coquelin in midfield – Dier is their Coq and Dembele is their Cazorla. They also press very well as a unit often tricking (this is the good kind of trickery) their opponents into turning the ball over in an advantageous position.

Man City are simply drilled like crazy. Pep makes sure that everyone knows how to cover for everyone else and that players press when they lose the ball and intentionally foul before the opponent can start a counter. When Man City are on form they are magnificent to watch play football, not because they have 4 players attacking at pace, but because of the way that they move the ball to position themselves and almost perpetually cover spaces for each other through movement and orchestration. You can hate City for a lot of reasons but you have to admit that Guardiola is a genius when it comes to the footballs.

That leaves Man U. They are certainly the odd ones out. Pogba is quite the attacking force and a loose cannon. And in theory, Mourinho should have his team playing more solid all around defending but they aren’t. They seem to be a team which isn’t quite built right. Pogba was magnificent at Juventus where he was paired with Vidal and Pirlo. Vidal and Pogba marauded up and down the pitch but generally stayed in their lanes, thus covering spaces for the defensively weak Pirlo (don’t @ me). But at United he is paired with the lumbering Matic and like at Arsenal, you can’t have a super slow center mid playing along with a marauding CM or you’re going to get in trouble.

But here’s where I go off the rails a bit. For me it all comes down to the forward. See, you don’t need to have all your midfielders running forward if your forward is top quality. Harry Kane, Diego Costa, Aubameyang, all make it easier for your team because they take up the scoring load. Arsenal didn’t have that before – Alexis didn’t play as a forward, he was an inverted winger. Now that Arsenal have a forward, I expect to see less of Ramsey in the box. Or like Ronay ends his piece, maybe not.

Maybe all this isn’t about the midfielders at all, maybe it’s not about their talents, where they go and run, where they stand, and how many tackles they miss per game. Maybe it’s just about minute changes in balance in a fast-paced and insanely physical game. And maybe it’s about striking up the right partnerships in these positions which will give your team the best chance to win the League. And maybe none of these teams has a chance to win the League because Man City are so insanely good and so well purchased that it’s pointless to fight against them.

Also, I should use a really big word here like palimpsest. To really Ronay up the piece.


*Ask your great great grandparents about Johnny Dangerously.


  1. The corollary to the diving argument is that players who are barged or kicked and stay on their feet to try and fight through it are never rewarded. When’s the last time you saw a forward get hammered in the box, stay on his feet, get the shot off and the ref blows the whistle and says, yes, you were fouled. Almost never. If a player doesn’t go to ground, then no call. So then forwards like Kane, Vardy and Hazard add that to their tool box; learn to put body between ball and defender, leave a leg dangling half a step behind to get hooked, fall over at the slightest nudge.

    I’m not picking sides nor suggesting I have the solution. I’m merely rationalizing how some players would decide to “cheat” by intentionally drawing penalties because there’s no reward for persevering through a challenge.

    1. All true.

      I wonder… it feels like human nature to award the penalty to the diver. His overt actions give the referee cover “it wasn’t my fault, you saw how well he dived” and an excuse “the player went down” whereas the player who is kicked and stays up “I couldn’t really tell how much of a foul it was”.

    2. Agree. But there’s also a difference between (a) situations where you choose to intentionally fall over because you’ve been impeded by your opponent unfairly, but you need the ref to notice that such impediment constitutes a foul in order to get the call, and (b) situations where being unfairly impeded itself is totally avoidable but you manufacture it to get the call–either because your only legitimate play on the ball is to toe poke it too far ahead of you where you won’t be able to retrieve it, or because, sure, you could still get to the ball, but “drawing” the pen is the more attractive option.
      Arguably, Kane’s against Liverpool is this last case: Kane could have rounded Karius without being touched; the keeper’s movements didn’t force him to kick the ball too far away, and weren’t going to inevitably trip or impede him in any way, until Kane dragged his leg, ensuring the contact. By Jack’s (perfectly legitimate) reasoning, Kane’s dive would be justified if Karius inevitably was going to unfairly impede him, and he (Kane) was just ensuring that the ref saw it. But Kane creates the impediment himself, rather than concentrating on getting to the ball and tapping it into an empty net.
      In Kane’s defense, it might be extremely difficult, in real time, to determine whether you’re in a type (a) or type (b) situation, so to avoid missing out on a legitimate goal scoring opportunity, you teach yourself to react to onrushing defenders/keepers by dragging your trailing leg to ensure contact and going over at the slightest provocation. I wish refs would cotton on to this tactic, but until that happens, I only wish Arsenal players would get a bit better at it themselves (but not this weekend, when any Arsenal player who tries it will surely get sent off for diving).

  2. It also helps Man City that they have some of the most technically superior players in the league like Gundogan, the two Silvas and KDB who, despite being involved in almost every attack also helps out defensively… and even if they didn’t have those players, they are managed by one of the most technically gifted midfielders of his generation in Guardiola who would have drilled that into them. Arsenal needs at least one technical player in midfield and then on top of that we need a manager who prioritizes controlling the game instead of kamikaze style of attacking. We had Cazorla whose maturity and brilliance meant he didn’t need to be taught any of these things and since his injury we have not been able to control the game with any consistency. Our style is chaotic. Sometimes it works and sometimes is doesn’t. Even when it works, we can look vulnerable like we did against Everton when we were 3 nil up.

    Similar to us, Utd needs a technical glue if you will. Maybe Herrera or Mata could do that – but I don’t know why we haven’t seen that from them. Maybe they are not disciplined enough or Jose hasn’t even tried. I don’t follow them well enough (nor do I care to) to dig deeper. I can’t figure out why but somehow Fellaini seems to have convinced everyone there that he is an actual footballer.

    Personally I think midfield is the most important position. You can cover for a subpar attack or defense if the midfield is really good but you can’t cover for a bad midfield – it eventually catches up.

  3. Yep, win midfield, win the match. When I watch my 9 and 12 year olds play, I see a giant gaping hole in midfield between forwards and defenders. Everyone wants to bomb forward and score, and I watch as the opponents regain possession and sali through on the counter. Sadly, it’s not much different from Arsenal, especially with Xhaka/Ramsey. NLD cries out for 3 ATB and Elneny replacing Xhaka. We don’t need more creativity and through balls. Just someone who will slow down a counter occasionally.

    1. We don’t have that player. Coq was the closest we had to a player like that but Wenger played him in a false #4 role, couldn’t make it work and promptly sold him.

      1. Not buying Coq as the solution and neither was anyone else, that’s why he went to Valencia on a pittance of a transfer fee. Yes he could get about the pitch and put in showy tackles. At one point I compared him to Kante and with good reason. There were three main issues with Coq: 1. He simply has a blind spot for good passes ahead of him and no use of his left foot, so counters routinely broke down around him and pressing teams feasted on his insecurity 2. The red mist descended too often and he collected bookings in almost every game. He had a few high profile red cards too. 3. His defensive awareness was not nearly the equal of his defensive aggression. I still remember when he allowed Robben to cut in on the edge of the D on to his left foot. Of all the things to allow in world football! Defensive brain-farts are not OK, especially when defending is the only thing you can do. Coq had to go.

        1. I didn’t say he was the solution to our defensive problems and neither was I against selling him. I was referring to the specific skill set he did bring to the table ( he was pretty decent at stopping counters as we saw when he was paired with Cazorla) and that’s something we don’t have in the team anymore. It’s fine that we sold him but we needed a midfielder that could make up for that particular loss of skill set from our midfield.

        2. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to attribute false ideas to you. Yes, on a basic level we need more pace in midfield and in defense, and Coq had that. I just think he had too many problems for that attribute alone to be a reason to keep him on the roster. I agree that skill needs replacing, but with Arsenal’s highly technical style in mind. Not a lot of players fit that bill, however, and they are highly coveted.

          1. I think “basic” is the operative word there. Sometimes it feels like we don’t do the basic things right.

        3. I am not sure but I THINK, the only red card of Coq’s Arsenal career was the silly challenge vs Tottenham, which earned him a second yellow. Typically, Dier and Lamela got away with similar or worse challenges.

          Yes, he was limited in attack, but he had better technique than generally accepted. His vision was the problem when he didn’t have time on the ball. I get why he was sold, but I don’t think the ‘red mist’ is a fair accusation against him.

          Also, what Feng said about the Robben thing. It was a lapse, but a slight one and Robben has done it to great defenders too. It was more a great goal than a defensive error. Frustrating though.

          1. Good memory, Shard. I stand corrected, one career red card only, though it sure stands out in my mind:

            I’m sticking to my guns on this one though:

            Yeah, it’s a top drawer strike. No doubt about it. It’s also the most classically “Robben” goal imaginable. Coquelin’s starting position is square, and invites Robben forward, but then he actually takes a little hop to his RIGHT, just as Robben makes his approach, giving him clear daylight to hit that shot. As you say and as the video shows, even with great positioning, that move is hard to stop, but Coq practically asked for it. Most of the other scenarios in this video were on the counter with defenders backpedaling and 1v1. Arsenal was completely set at the time that we gave up that goal.

  4. If you liked the Ronay piece, Tim, get a load of the Jonathan Wilson piece about Arsenal today in the Guardian. Talk about uncharitable. Beyond that, it’s also factually incorrect, though I understand that facts are only window dressing in punchy editorial that tries to make a generalization about a football manager. Still, I couldn’t help but try to remember the last time Arsene bought a “flaky creator.” Is he talking about Mesut Ozil? That was 4.5 years ago. Arshavin? That was almost 10 now. Surely Cazorla can’t be described as “flaky”?

    And then there’s this gem on Auba/Mkhi: “They may be misfits who were only available because their previous clubs lost patience with their lack of discipline and inability to impose themselves respectively, but both are fine players who have worked well together in the past.”

    At least he concedes that the Bundesliga’s top scorer and player of the year, respectively, from just two seasons ago are “fine.”

    Meanwhile: “Spurs are youthful and thrusting, blessed with an innovative and likable manager who likes to develop his own talent, and excited by the prospect of a move to a new stadium – just as Arsenal were a decade ago.”

    Yes, “thrusting” indeed, thrusting right into the penalty box until they can thrust no more. Arsenal a decade ago were a much better team than Spurs are right now. Arsenal from 15 years ago, relatively speaking, are not even in the same discussion as this Spurs team. Somebody remind Wilson, while he slags off Wenger for not winning (after 3 FA cups in 4 years) that they haven’t won a damn thing with Pochettino. Not one rusty cup.

    His overall message seems to be: Stop being happy, you’ll always be hopeless as long as Wenger is there. “Arsenal are left as what they were – no more reliable, no more robust and no more likely to mount a serious title challenge than they have been for years.”

    It’s fair to wonder what it would take to convince Wilson that Arsenal are a serious team.

    1. Let’s hope a rare away victory on Saturday!
      I really liked the Ronay piece and I blame Viera and Keane for the current midfield conundrum. Those two defined the ideal central midfield template and ever since teams have been searching for their equivalents – someone with defensive authority, enormous energy, team leaders in spirit if not in name, but also technically gifted, positionally aware and capable of chipping in with a few (vital) goals.
      The modern replacements haven’t been found and I think Ronay’s right when he says the game evolves, and the qualities that made them so good, often within a 442 formation, are shared round other positions now. The role is being redefined and it’ll be fascinating to see what emerges – will people be looking for the new Mikhitaryan in years to come?

  5. Ronay has mastered the art of saying very little (certainly nothing interesting) in a pretentious manner that’s supposed to pass for wit and insight. Most of the other Guardian writers, e.g. Wilson, are the same: no better than the other Fleet Street hacks in terms of content, just slightly better writers.
    For an actually interesting and persuasive piece from today, I give you Michael Cox:

    1. He makes a simple and straightforward case for a rule change which would certainly benefit counter-attacking teams. He also touches on a pet peeve of mine, namely the lack of punishment for persistent fouling, a behaviour we have been subject to for years as (if you believe some of the pundits) a legitimate tactic to offset superior technical ability. I wish refs were more willing to penalize such fouls to the extent that, once persistent fouling by a team has been established, the captain and manager are informed that ANY player from that team will be booked for any further such fouls. There may be practical problems implementing this (subjectivity, excessive red cards?), but I get so sick of the argument that physicality allows a level playing field between the top teams and the Stoke Cities; and persistent fouling IS a bookable offense, just one that’s rarely enforced, so no rule change is really required. BTW, I had to roll my eyes at Raheem Sterling’s comment that City are being “butchered”… welcome to the club. Cue the neanderthals lining up to say that City just don’t like it up ’em…

      1. I never got the “it levels the playing field” logic. All it does is penalize a team for having better players. If you want to reign in expenses to make the league more competitive, that’s one thing, but letting teams get away with rotational fouling seems to go against spirit of the sport. I mean if you’re a footballer, the whole point is to become a better at football isn’t it?

  6. For some reason the Guardian is obsessed with Arsenal & not always in a negative way (which is why Tim would love to write for them). I find Barney quite amusing most of the time and they have Amy of course. Todays Fiver is riffing on Wenger’s diving statement and puts the boot into Kane & Alli, so that’s 2-1 to Arsenal. Not bad really.

  7. Barney Ronay, who never saw a pudding that he couldn’t over-egg, is all fur coat and no knickers. At the risk of sounding like the very guy I’m disdaining, he’s the iPhone X of football analysts. Style over substance. An analyst who’s not that analytical or perceptive, but turns a (increasingly infrequent) pretty phrase.

    The Guardian readers, particularly the typically smart commenters, provided some perspective. I like this from jkhd, he of the Szczesny avatar.

    BARNEY: A week later Aaron Ramsey also rampaged, Pogba-style, but against weaker opponents and with better execution, scoring a hat‑trick and getting away with rarely supporting Granit Xhaka as Everton only had a brief spell where they swamped Arsenal’s midfield.

    JKHD: Except this isn’t true. If you actually watched the game, you would’ve seen that Ramsey was very conservative in his forward movement, which made it all the more effective. He gave Xhaka a lot of support, and was quite often the deeper of the two.


    Then there’s this from Saltee, another thoughtful gooner:
    “…..its just assumed because he scored 3 his defensive support was poor. Simply not true at all.”

    There’s the narrative, and then there’s what actually happens in the game.

    1. Yep.

      Plus, there wasn’t really anything remotely resembling thoughtful analysis in the Ronay piece.
      Ok, so Pogba, Ramsey, Bakayoko, and Dembele are kinda, sorta, similar players? And some of them did well last weekend and some of them didn’t?!?
      First of all, they’re not all that similar.
      Second of all, what about teams who play with “number 8’s” with very different styles to the Pogba-Ramsey types (e.g. when we play Wilshere in there instead)? There are many, many midfielders who aren’t DM’s but who aren’t forward-thinking box-to-box types like Pogba and Rambo. He talks as if we’re back in the days of Bryan Robson and Gazza or something. Did he never watch Xavi? Or Thiago Alcantara? Luca Bloody Modric?
      Third, there’s an obvious solution for their clubs if the worry is that Pogba and Ramsey vacate their position too much: play them in a midfield three!! The problem, to the degree that there is any problem (and you know I think there is with our midfield balance), is a straightforward tactical one created by Wenger and Jose, not a problem with the sorts of players that Ramsey and Pogba are, or because “the controlling midfielder,” as an abstract type, is going through some kind of identity crisis.

      1. It’s a very British expression. 🙂 You go for the fancy stuff and miss the basics. I think that Barney is little more than a show-off. I really like Paul Hayward, who I think is now with the Telegraph.

    2. Really enjoyed your description of Ronay.

      I like him, but I don’t read him for analysis. I read him because sometimes — though, yes, more and more infrequently — he constructs fabulously unwieldy but terribly amusing similes that also stick. I can’t think of Ozil as anything other than an elf prince these days because of Ronay. But my love of fantasy literature means that being an elf prince is a good thing.

      Just read David Hytner’s piece on Spurs’ new stadium. There’s a lot of optimism that this build will take them to the next level on and off the pitch. I remember when we once felt that way…

  8. I enjoyed Arsene dishing on English divers being the best. British press xenophobia hold that Johnny Foreigner is an instinctive cheat, but can anyone point me to a dirtier player in the prem than Dele Alli? Not just diving, but nasty, premeditated fouls. He’s an awful pice of work, and gets nowhere near the criticism that he should.

      1. Undoubtably! Rather than criticise referees and getting a heavy fine & touchline ban he speaks generally about the state of UK football with a subtext that the refs are not doing their jobs in spotting the divers, putting pressure on tomorrows referee the dreaded Anthony Taylor.

  9. Remember when the diving panel started with such fanfare? Well, they said they can go back and punish diving. The only guy they’ve punished so far (I’m happy to be corrected here) is Everton’s Niasse, who actually did get hit by the defender, but decided to go down belatedly. The logic given was that he exaggerated the effect the contact had on him. Basically, they punished him for not diving well enough.

    Also, I actually agree with Alan Shearer when he says if they are serious, players who dive should also face a ban later, regardless of whether the referee already booked them.

    Anyway, it will be interesting to see how this game goes. I like to think we’re the better team when we’re focused, which I think we will be. Auba and Miki add some threat and (possibly) balance to our team, but further back might be a problem with Mustafi, who can sometimes be reckless. You just know the stage is set for Kane to win a penalty anyway. And maybe it’s a hangup from a few years ago, but I really don’t trust Anthony Taylor not to screw us over.

  10. Amy Lawrence is discussing diving on Arseblog’s Arsecast today. Haven’t had a chance to listen yet, but it should be interesting at the least.

  11. You know this animal “Ostrich” right?
    In our language we call them something which means the “camel-bird”
    And we have a idiom that says:
    Someone asked the Camel-bird to sing, she said: Can’t, I’m a camel. Then he said: Carry my goods then! And she said: Can’t, I’m a bird!
    That’s exactly what Aaron Ramsey is!

    1. I like that idiom but when Aaron Ramsey is “on song,” he can sing AND carry your goods, like he did vs. Everton and in the cup finals. Against Chelsea in that game, playing alongside Xhaka, Ramsey scored the game winner while also logging 6 tackles, 2 interceptions, 1 block, 1 clearance and no fouls.

      1. You’re right
        He is amazing to find the exact location one needs to be in the box but he is not a good finisher and worse than that I’ve seen this many times that he positioned himself in that perfect spot but he received the ball he acted like he is not expecting it, surprised! And he hides away from the playmaking a lot, never makes himself available to receive a ball from the defenders
        My eye are obviously biased with negativity against him any way because he was my favourite for long time. He is more like a luxury player we can’t afford in this squad

  12. Credit again to Wenger….way ahead of football on all these points. Klop,Pooch, Pep, etc are all now *mourning *about the way the game is refereed.

  13. Pochetino seems to think that diving is part of football the way tactics and tricking the opponent are.
    If you consider the ref to be your opponent then yea.

    As long as the punishment for diving remains the same as for taking off ones shirt, nothing will change.

    Start hitting players where it really counts (money ) and maybe then you’ll see some real change.

    Donate the money collected in fines to some worthy causes…, say for example the “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up ” fund , to supply the elderly with mobility issues with the gizmos alerting others of their medical emergency.

    Dele Alli could even make some money back as a spokesman for the “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up ” foundation so it would be a win win for everyone involved.

    1. Money is not enough punishment because high profile players already have so much of it. It’s far more valuable to win a game than to be fined. Suspensions or docked points are the only thing that will get the message to stick.

      They won’t do it though because intent is a key part of it and it’s so hard to prove. Still, in cases like the Alli booking, it’s clear enough.

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