One of the few programs that my father used to allow us to watch were what he called “Nature Shows”. On Saturdays and Sundays when it was too crummy to go outside, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and David Attenborough’s Life on Earth were my television companions.
One feature of all nature programs is the big hunt. That’s the segment where they follow a lion pride as it stalks a herd of water buffalo. These segments were most memorable when the prey escaped after a long and dramatic chase sequence or, and these were the very best, the lions would corner a sick buffalo and there would be a fight to the death. Lions would jump on the adult beast and try to kill it, but he would fight back with kicks and horns, and I imagine if he could, he would have even pulled hair. Anything to stay alive for just a few more minutes.
My initial reaction to yesterday’s draw against Man United was disgust. We all knew that Mourinho was going to send his players out there to kick Arsenal off the pitch. I think even Arsenal were prepared for a tough match. But what Arsenal weren’t prepared for was a cowardly referee who refused to stand up to United’s obvious roughhousing.
Rob Holding was the first victim. Holding’s new role for Arsenal is to bring the ball forward down the wings. Rashford saw him advancing and ran over to tackle with no regard for the safety of his fellow professional and in the clash, took out Holding’s knee. Holding had to be stretchered off the pitch.
But I didn’t get the sense that Holding was especially targeted, not the way that Guendouzi obviously was. It was always going to be a tough match for the 19 year old. I expected United to pressure him – because he’s young and inexperienced – but I had forgotten that they have a long tradition of trying to break the legs of young, talented players. Something they did to Jose Antonio Reyes back in 2005 and again here last night.
Guendouzi was fouled six times in this match. That’s the official count. The unofficial count was much higher, closer to 10. And even more incredibly, players were allowed to foul Guendouzi without any punishment from the referee. Marcos Rojo went in on Guendouzi with a two-footed tackle in the 37th minute and how Matteo escaped without a broken leg is just down to the Frenchman’s dexterity. Rojo was given a yellow card but it should have been a red.
And toward the end of the match, Mourinho threw on his enforcer. The guy whose job is to literally run around elbowing people in the back of the head and then look at the referee like “who, me?” This is Mourinho’s go-to plan and if you need evidence that he’s a bankrupt manager, look no further than the fact that he’s been agitating the club to sign him a center back when what his team needs is a forward. They need a goal-scorer so desperately that Marouane Fellaini is their backup plan.
Fellaini is the symbol of this Manchester United team. They don’t have players with the skill to outplay their opponents. They don’t have a manager who can make his players better, who can teach them technical skills to make them better players; they have Marouane Fellaini, a water buffalo making one last anguished attempt to escape as the predators all close in on them.
Fellaini came on and started thrashing around: elbowing Lichtsteiner, shoving over Mustafi, and kicking Torreira. And when Matteo Guendouzi easily dribbled around him and went in looking for the kill, Fellaini grabbed a handful of hair, whipping Guendouzi’s head backward.
By almost every measure, Manchester United are one of the biggest teams in the world. They have the highest revenue in world football, they make 1/3 again more than Arsenal who are the 6th richest team on Deloitte’s rich list. They have more supporters than any other team. They have the biggest sponsorships. They have some of the biggest transfers in world football history: Martial (£75), Lukaku (£80m), Pogba (£90m). And they pay the highest salaries in world football: Alexis Sanchez £26m.
They have the money, they have the history, they have the stadium, they have the supporters, and they have the players of a big club. And yet they play like a mid-table team. They aren’t in a match trying to out-play the opposition anymore. They are simply trying to kick players off the pitch. They have become the Marouane Fellaini of football.
You listen to Mourinho and he will talk about “pashun” and playing with “fire”. But what he’s really talking about is football from the 18th century. And those managers who play that way are all getting left behind. Managers like Sam Allardyce, Tony Pulis, Mark Hughes, and Jose Mourinho are all being relegated to the trash bin of history. In their place are men who understand tactics and who take pride in making their teams better like Eddie Howe, Pep Guardiola, Unai Emery, Marco Silva, and Maurizio Sarri. All managers who are above Mourinho and United in the table and who do so on far less resources.
At first I was disgusted by United’s display. But I’ve come to realize that this is just what little clubs with bankrupt managers do. Do you think Man City would resort to hair pulling to stop 19 year old Matteo Guendouzi? They wouldn’t have to, because he would use his player’s technical ability and tactical awareness to choke him off the ball. Eddie Howe and Sarri have also played against Matteo Guendouzi and none of them resorted to two-footed tackles, targeted fouling, or hair pulling to stop Arsenal from playing.
Manchester United don’t play like a big club. They play like a Stoke City. They are Stoke-on-Stretford.
But this is the cycle of life. When cornered by a larger, more powerful beast, the prey will eventually resort to any means necessary to survive. And if nature shows have taught me anything it’s that sometimes the little animal gets away, by luck, and if they have a sympathetic referee.