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.