“Must win games”

There’s a bit of whataboutery going on this morning. Juventus lost on a last minute penalty to Real Madrid and all hell has broken loose among fans, reporters, managers, and players. The whole football world disagrees about the call and it’s great fun.

I was rooting for Juventus yesterday because I love an underdog story. Not that Juventus were plucky little upstarts or anything but they were down 3-0 in the first leg, had their star striker sent off, and they were facing back-to-back Champions League winners Real Madrid at the Bernabeu. Plus there’s the back story with Buffon and this being his last ever game (we’ll see if that’s still the case).

But as soon as I saw Michael Oliver point to the spot my heart sank. Even watching the replays over and over again just deepend the despair. It was a penalty and I didn’t even have the cold comfort of saying “now we know why English referees aren’t in the world cup.”

The debate around this call perfectly captures every side of football fans and their relationship to referees at the moment. I’ve heard some folks argue that Oliver was brave to make that call because it was last minute, and that he was cowardly to make that call because it was at the Bernabeu and the pressure was too much. That the stature of the game requires him NOT to make the call and just exactly the opposite! I’ve heard people say that the contact was “not enough for me” or that it was clearly a shove in the back. There are those saying Vazquez dived and those saying Benatia kicked him in the chest. Was the referee sighted? Could he see Benatia kick Vazquez? Would he have given the penalty on the other end of the pitch? Why give a penalty in the final minute of a Champions League quarter final? I think I even saw someone say that Benatia won the ball.

As I have written before the laws of the game are so open for interpretation that this call is exactly what you get. Did I say that makes it right? Would I have called that? Probably not. But it doesn’t matter what I would have done or what you think should have been called because none of us are professional referees*.

But the more difficult part for fans is that the laws of the game, and their interpretation by each individual referee, is so wildly different, that it almost seems like there are no laws. Arguing the laws is pointless. What constitutes a foul is interpretive. Even VAR won’t help. We’ve all had nearly countless hours watching replays of the foul and still none of us agree. You can’t be right and you also can’t be wrong. Catch 22.

Maybe that’s the fun part as so many pundits argue: you all get to debate whether Juventus were “robbed”, we pile more dislike on Cristiano Ronaldo, referees get more stick, Michael Oliver is now “that referee from the Real Madrid-Juventus game”. The game passes into folklore status.

The other moment that seems to have riled so many fans is Buffon’s red card. But when I was watching it looked to me like he was trying to get sent off – screaming in the face of the official, shoving him in the back – these are usually good ways to get sent off. That’s just my gut reaction and like fouls I can’t be right or wrong for having it. I do know that he had been accused of lacking “pashun” in the previous match, when he’d been spotted laughing and joking with Ronaldo after the crushing defeat. And I also know that he’s said: “How do I imagine my last ever game? Maybe I’ll go out like Zidane, headbutting someone on the pitch!” So, maybe that played a part in my gut feeling. Who knows.

If I’m generous to Buffon I think he got himself sent off so that Wojciech Szczesny could come on and save the day. A sort of passing of the torch. Szczesny was funny too. He swaggered on to the pitch, took an age to crawl up to the line, stomped on the penalty spot, and angered Ronaldo by jumping up and down and touching the crossbar. He even guessed the right way against Ronaldo, but there was no chance he was going to save that shot, it was a wicked blast into the side netting. Unstoppable.

Juventus, Roma, Man City and Liverpool also offer us some lessons to take forward as Arsenal supporters. The first is the most obvious: that a 3 goal cushion isn’t enough. Bookmaker will offer odds for the game and nearly every other type of bet that you want but when Juve tried to shut up shop and get into extra time after they scored the third goal, they invited pressure and they clearly couldn’t handle that pressure. This was a Juventus side that allowed 7 goals in their last 4 Champions League matches. Hardly the catenaccio we all expect from the Italian teams. The penalty call clearly overshadowed the fact that Juventus were weak defensively.

Arsenal are in a bit of a precarious position because despite scoring four goals, CSKA got a vital away goal and if they win 3-0 tonight, like Roma did to Barcelona, the Russian side will advance. CSKA also have a similar player to Djeko (albeit not anywhere near as good) and Mandzukic in Pontus Wernbloom and I expect to see them deploy a familiar tactic to Roma and Juventus by getting up and down Arsenal’s flanks and whipping in crosses to the far post where The Wurm can use his body to just bash in goals.

The CSKA manager has kind of called Wenger out and suggested he will get the three goals he needs saying, “Arsenal have a philosophy and have stuck to it for a long time, for many years, regardless of their record. If they are losing or winning they still play to make supporters and fans happy. When you act like this, trying to cheer up the supporters, you can have some problems in the defence.” This is so lolly.

To stop this happening, I’d love to see Arsenal play a bit cynical. Watching all the Champions League matches (plus the big matches from the Premier League) I was struck by how often teams get away with fouls to stop plays developing. What used to almost always be a yellow card – for a player fouling a man on a breakaway – now seems to be just called as a regular foul. I know it won’t happen but I’m going to wish for it anyway.

Arsenal are missing the director of flow in the midfield, Granit Xhaka, today and that does spell a bit of a problem. Arsenal’s midfield looks lost without him in there to make his exclusively left footed passes after taking two touches. Wilshere has been poor for the last two matches and doesn’t seem to have good chemistry with Elneny and Ramsey but Arsenal will need the three of them to stay close, not hide, cover for each other, and also still make runs forward into the box.

Arsenal are also missing Mkhitaryan, who I think is becoming something of an on-field leader for Arsenal. He’s one of the only players who would just cynically foul the opposition, he gets stuck in to tackles all the time, and he almost always looks to attack directly when he has the ball. Iwobi is like his polar opposite and will probably be the starter today.

Arsenal have to stay tight but also not invite too much pressure. They have to attack but not recklessly attack. They have to press CSKA and also foul when they lose the ball (which is going to be often today). Any score other than 3-0 for CSKA sees Arsenal through to the next round which is one step closer to the only prize that matters this season.


*See how utterly annoying this is. You can’t criticize me because you’re not a professional writer like me! You can’t criticize police unless you’re a professional policeman! You can’t criticize Trump because you’re not a professional…


  1. Good post Tim.
    I thought Oliver had a blinder but if you compare reactions to his performance to either leg of Liverpool/ City quarterfinal called by the German and Spanish crews, you might be forgiven for thinking his was the worst of the three when nothing of the sort is true.

    Liverpool benefited by four decisions resulted in goals or penalty over two legs but you’d be hard pressed to find a single neutral say they were robbed probably because of the lopsided score.

    Oliver didn’t lose Juve this game. They did it all by themselves in the first leg.
    There’s a good reason no team has ever done what they needed to do in the second leg at the Bernabeu.
    Juve played a perfect game for 70 minutes and then they simply ran out of steam.
    Real would’ve most likely scored from an open play in the extra time.

  2. As you can read in the last thread, I’m in the ‘consider the occasion’ camp. Because I’ve seen refs go both ways on those kinds of fouls in the box, I would have preferred Oliver went the other way instead of the way that ultimately decided a Champions League quarterfinal. And, of course, I’m perfectly willing to admit that my bias in favor of Juventus and Buffon helps form my opinion! I don’t imagine any Real Madrid fans were worried about how they won, or whether refs should be a little less pedantic on football’s biggest stage. And yes, I’m still bitter about the red card shown to Lehmann over a decade ago! So I have baggage in this area.

    Anyway, we move on, and ultimately, what happens in the CL this year isn’t of great importance to me. So long as Madrid eventually get beaten, of course! Only problem is they’re clearly the best side left in the competition…by quite a margin, in my opinion.

    Over to matters of closer interest, and I’m really curious what we’ll see tonight. I honestly can’t call it, but while my heart is hoping for a convincing win, my head tells me we’ll lose tonight but go through. 2-1 maybe? Any team with Mustafi and Iwobi in it is going to be suspect, the former breaking down our defense, the latter breaking down our attacking play. Yes, Iwobi had a superb performance against Southampton, but he is the picture of inconsistency, and could easily follow that up with a stinker tonight. We’ll see. As for Mustafi. Ugh. Just, ugh. Please walk away from this club on your stubby little bowlegs.

    1. Here’s another perspective: Vazquez is through, all he has to do is hump the ball in with any part of his body. Benatia sees that and in order to stop the goal does whatever he can to break up play. He knows that it’s the last second of the game and that he might be able to get away with being more “assertive” so he does just that and jumping into the back of the player kind of “crab kicks” the ball into Vazquez’ chest.

      For me, the real breakdown came off the cross (which wasn’t shut down), the header (which Ronaldo won), and Benatia switching off to let Vasquez get in for the shot. It wasn’t Oliver who decided the game. Juventus’ defensive breakdown forced Benatia to attack the ball through Vasquez. It was Juventus who decided the match in the last minute, not Oliver.

      That’s my take but I do understand your position.

      Mustafi is the Corgi of world football.

      1. Talking about the breakdown is not really the issue… you’re right, they could have defended those situations better, but it’s not really the point. Was it a pen or not? A pen can be both correct by the letter of the law, and soft. This was both.

        Was it CLEAR CUT, nailed on? I don’t know. I’m conflicted in that particular instance, but I hate the inconsistency refs show on this.

        1. It felt clear cut to me in both the live action and the replay.

          This is the problem: there is no such thing as an objectively clearly cut penalty.

          1. Just heard on the radio 30% millennials believe the Earth is flat, and we are all supposed to agree on a penalty call?

            Remarkably, my reaction was similar to yours,
            Thought it was a pen but wanted Oliver to wave the play on for all the reasons aforementioned.

  3. Thanks for the post, it was a foul, it was in the box, it was a penalty. Having awarded the penalty Oliver had no choice, once Buffoon had tried his best to intimidate him, but to send him off.

    The end of a great career or not, a player of his experience should not have lost the plot. I’ve no sympathy for him.

    Did Oliver miss another chance to nail a mega-star? After scoring the penalty Ronald whipped of his shirt and postured in front of his adoring fans, for which he should have been cautioned.

  4. As to the game tonight, I’m not getting carried away, okay we’re 4 – 1 up but while I hope its enough our defence is always capable of an almighty cock-up.

    The first goal will be critical, if we get it we should go on to win, if CSKA score first then……

      1. My apologies for outraging the sensibilities of your spam filter, in future I’ll use “faux pas”. 😇

        I did wonder why the comment didn’t immediately appear. 😕

  5. I noticed you pointed out on Twitter that Oliver had been fooled by three Real Madrid dives in a row before giving them the penalty. It was a legit penalty but I think football has to do better at making penalising divey teams. Kudos should really go to Toni Kroos was ice-cold on the ball constructing the move that led to the penalty. The value of a CM who can do that is immeasurable and I think Kroos’ free transfer from Bayern was one of the most significant transfer coups of the last decade.

    I laughed when you wrote about Xhaka that we’ll miss his “exclusively left footed passes after taking two touches”. Our entire predicament can be explained by how we’ve come rely on a fairly limited player. But what he can do, he does majestically.

    Just like Kroos, Wijnaldum had a big moment for Liverpool in creating Salah’s killer away goal. Under pressure in his own half he moved as if to spread play but pirouetted to shake off the pressing City player before playing a perfect slide-rule pass to Ox, who then feeds Salah, who feeds Mane, etc. It was a pretty sensational team goal, and the kind of move Xhaka would pull off more often if it wasn’t for his weirdly laborious turning circle.

    1. English refs admit that they call the game differently in England than in Champions League.

  6. I think we’re gonna draw tonight. 2 -2, is my prediction.

    I hope we have the most boring of all the European games this week 🙂

  7. Here’s the starting line-up: Cech, Bellerin, Mustafi, Koscielny, Monreal, Ramsey, Ozil, Wilshere, Welbeck, Lacazette.

  8. No surprises there, it’s the strongest available eleven. I just hope we start playing from the off.

  9. “The referee has a dustbin where his hear should be”.

    Those post-match comments from Gigi are absolutely majestic. Belongs in the same category as Wenger’s “you are a disgrace to your federation”.

    We’re completely incoherent in midfield. As expected!

  10. HT: Total garbage. I expected us to struggle, but I didn’t expect us to be this bad. This is among the worst displays I’ve seen this season, and it’s so collectively bad that I’m hesitant to single out anybody.

    But here, let me try: Elneny looks completely lost, Monreal and Bellerin look like they’re running in molasses, our forwards need a pair of glasses and a pair of feet, and Wilshere…oh, Wilshere. Why does he still get starts? He’s been rubbish for several weeks now. What is it he does well? I mean, he’s the master of hospital passes, getting muscled off the ball, and holding onto possession for far too long. But what else is he the master of? I will not lose a wink if he leaves this summer, and I find it really odd that Wenger persists with him.

  11. Half time, now for one of Wenger’s inspirational team talks, “Get out there and kick ass !!!!!”

    More likely he’ll be telling them to be patient and carry on what they’ve been doing.

    I can’t see any options from the bench, except for Iwobi to replace Wilshere.

        1. Oh, he is there! I didn’t see his name on the subs list, but Arseblog isn’t always accurate when listing the bench!

  12. At last, the goal we’ve been begging for. Great assist from Elneny (one of the passes of the season) and a good finish from Welbeck.

    And Iwobi, yes Iwobi, is on for Lacazette

  13. Another lovely pass by Elneny to Ramsey to make it 3 – 6 on aggregate.

    We’re in the draw tomorrow. 🎼🎵🎶🎶🎵

  14. Elneny, shall we say, really grew into the game. Two wonderful assists.

    I don’t ever want to see Wilshere start another Arsenal match. He and Cech can’t leave soon enough.

    1. Cech was pretty awful for the 1st goal. He made it way too easy for kebabking or whatever his name is to score.

  15. Hey community, how’s 2-2 for some expert tipping 😉

    That was nervy. Till Welbeck, against all expectations, decided to imitate Thierry Henry.

    Wenger’s treatment of Lacazette is approaching willful humiliation, though in truth, he didn’t do much. Had a direct run at goal with one defender at beat around minute 80 and decided to pass it.

    Impressed with Elneny second half.

    1. Yes, good prediction. My predicted 2-1 loss was looking good until Ramsey ruined everything.

  16. Good call, Claudeivan.
    Elneny had a strange match. Abysmal 1st half, MOTM performance in the 2nd half. Kind of like the entire team over the two legs. Hoping Wilshire and Ramsey are OK, obviously.

  17. Elneny, wow. That pass to cut out 2 defenders tells me he can make a forward pass and what a pass it was.
    We have Lacazette and Welbeck is the hero. That is a good thing because Lacazette’s time will come.
    We now have a GK crisis. Cech is pass it, Ospina is injured and Macey is the back up. We probably have the worst GK of the teams left and the shakiest back line.
    I really need to stop cursing at the TV while watching Arsenal because it is just silly. Isn’t it?
    Diego Costa came off injured if anyone cares.

  18. Yeah, just keep playing Laca, who just came back from knee surgery, when the Arsenal are ahead, and have him get hurt again before the semifinal. Not..
    A draw is a win is a win.

  19. First leg at home. Winning the tie will remove the underdog label from around our necks.

    1. I actually think playing the first leg at home is an advantage. I don’t understand why the other way round is supposed to be better when you potentially end up playing 30 mins extra time where the opponent’s goal counts more than yours.

  20. Tim. I had the same thought about Buffon. That he wanted to get sent off because Szczesny is the better penalty stopper.

    Also your take on the penalty is exactly as mine. I agree that the rules aren’t clear enough. I also think they can’t be clear enough if football is to not become, say, basketball (which has its own problems I know) But I think the variance between decisions by different refs can be reduced. They should officially come out and use old footage to advice refs and the fans as to how they view certain calls should be made. But they probably do that in house with refs, they probably also care about ‘the occasion’ and how it impacts the ref (or should impact his call), and they have no need to tell us because we enjoy the circus anyway.

  21. Shard, I can’t see where any rule was unclear in the penalty incident. It was indisputably a foul, therefore Oliver was absolutely correct in awarding a penalty. Last minute or first minute, the Bernabeu or the local park, it makes no difference.

    As far as I can see there is no interpretation of the rules that could alter the decision.

    Incidentally we are both refugees from another blog, but I go under a different soubriquet.

  22. I don’t think there was a scenario in which Arsenal didn’t have to face Atletico if they wanted to lift this trophy.
    Facing them in the final would’ve meant playing them in a one off, high pressure away game and I don’t think that’s ever been our strength.

    All things considered, playing them over two legs, with the first leg at home where Arsenal have been pretty good all season, might be the best option indeed.

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