The big moments

Footballers live and die by the big moments. If a player makes one mistake it’s not the end of the world because most fans are forgiving, to an extent. But if you make a mistake, or if you score a goal, everything you’ve done that night gets highlighted and amplified. You become the hero or the villain.

For most players, each bad pass is like a cut. You can make one or two without too much harm – get a compress on at half-time, stop the bleeding – but if you keep it up, suddenly any pass which is less than perfect gets the fans groaning, opening that wound even further.

Trying to take on a defender is expected and applauded, but hold on to the ball too long, lose possession too often, and fans will get on your back. And like the bad pass, this too is cumulative but not just in one game. These mistakes build up over time and form almost a body of work for a player. Until one day they turn the ball over one too many times, make one too many bad passes and the fans go back in time: all the sudden the player’s entire history comes flooding back.

And fans tend not to forget when a player reaches that tipping point. Some fans can’t remember their anniversary but can remember the day they had “enough of Alexis Sanchez* turning the ball over all the time”. And from that point on, for those fans, nothing will ever be good enough. No goals will redeem him. No game-saving tackles will put him back in good stead.

But before a player gets that far gone, they can still be redeemed and resurrected. One bad match can be forgotten; make a game-saving tackle or a game-winning goal and you’re all good. Fans won’t even hardly remember the bad moments in the game. In fact, if anyone dares to point out that a player’s game was mostly poor, but for the one or two good passes, they will be laughed at. And I guess for good reason: football is a game of big moments. If the bad ones kill, then the good ones should resurrect.

Defenders live by this same code but they have a few addendums.

The first is that they can’t be taken off. If an attacking player has a bad game, the coach just subs him out and fans will usually understand (again, up to a point) because the fans want to get someone on who can help win the game. But if a defender is having a bad game, if he’s looking shaky, it’s very rare for the coach to sub him off. And if he does sub him off, the coach has to say it was because of an injury. Unlike any other position, defenders are expected to play the full 90 minutes, no matter if they are having a bad night.

Defenders are also held to a higher standard when it comes to mistakes. Poor control for an attacker is understandable (“he was under pressure”), poor control for a defender is devastating (and it doesn’t matter how much pressure he’s under). Partly that’s because a turnover by an attacker is generally less harmful but it’s also just a bias in favor of attacking players. For example, missing a sitter because of poor control – even if it would have won the game or saved a point – is more often forgiven than miscontrolling a pass in your own final third and conceding a goal. Even if the two actions have essentially the same effect on the game outcome, the defender will usually get more “stick”.

Which is doubly unfair when you consider point number three: defenders have very few chances to make up for their errors. If an attacking player misses an easy shot, they will usually have another chance and sometimes in that same game. But defenders have few chances to redeem themselves. Game-saving tackles are extremely rare and opportunities to score goals just slightly less.

So, defenders live a largely unloved life. They can’t hide, they can’t get a break, they are held to a higher standard in almost every regard, and if they do make a mistake they can’t make up for it on the day.

And if you play in a system like Sampaoli’s at Marseille, you are not only expected to be that perfect defender but also collect the ball under constant pressure and find the perfect pass up the pitch which opens up the attack. Sampaoli’s system puts his defenders as the key players, passing to them first, inviting the opposition to pressure high, so that his team can create space for his attacking players to run at their defenders, hoping to get them to commit those same errors. His system – and Unai Emery’s system for that matter – banks on his defenders being better than the opponent’s pressure. But it’s a huge gamble and one which occasionally comes up craps.

Last night Sampaoli’s Marseille faced off against Mauricio Sarri’s Lazio in the Europa League. Sampaoli’s team played it out from the back, demanding that his defenders – including precocious Arsenal CB William Saliba – control the ball and get his team started in attack. Sarri’s Lazio played the game exactly how Sampaoli would have wanted it, pressing Marseille for nearly the full 90 minutes. And not just the theater of pressing, this was a coordinated, attacking pressure, with two or three players closing down on the ball and on the outlets at the same time.

Of his 108 touches, William Saliba was 99% good. There were a few passes which I thought were too close to the defender, which put his teammate under too much pressure. There were a couple of stray passes and there were even some just outright bad passes. But Lazio had clearly targeted Saliba in this match, his center back companion Caleta-car was almost never pressed. And Lazio time and again was able to get Marseille to play to Saliba by shadowing the other side of the pitch and then close the sack on Saliba, forcing him to turn and play back to the keeper, or try to force a pass into even more pressure.

Overall, he did exceptionally well for a young man, and one or two times showed some real skill to create himself a yard of space and drill a long, straight pass up the pitch to spring the attack. But I’ve played in that game before, on both ends of the pitch, and as fun as it is for the guys closing down – you can almost smell the fear – it’s brutal to watch a player get hounded like that. Especially a player I like and have high hopes for.

In the end, Lazio scored two goals. Both of them were directly related to William Saliba. For the first goal, a Lazio player took a shot and Saliba was standing right in the way. He tried to clear the ball with a small swipe of his foot and instead directed it to Felipe Anderson, who was offside. But since Saliba was judged to have attempted to make a pass/clearance, he’d played Anderson onside.

The second goal was much more clear cut. All game, Lazio had pressed Saliba and Valentin Roniger on the right – making sure to cut off Saliba’s ability to play to his left. The two had done well and I was especially impressed with Roniger who could play under the added pressure of hugging the touch-line. But in one moment, Roniger passed the ball back to Saliba, not the best pass but probably should have been controlled, and Saliba’s touch was just a millimeter off. The ball slid under his foot and Ciro Immobile was there to pounce and scored a wonderful curler.

The slow motion camera caught the look of agony on Saliba’s face. He knew what had happened and what was coming next:

“He’s happy to defend open spaces, he’s really good in duels, he has a huge personality to play the way we demand and to make the process with the ball in different ways against different kinds of press, or when they don’t press and he has time on the ball to make the right decisions.”

That was Mikel Arteta talking about Ben White but the exact quote is true about Saliba. He’s the kind of big personality who can play in a system where the coach puts huge faith in his defenders to start the team’s attack under enormous pressure. And 99% of the time, he’s going to get that pressure right, he’s going to help you get out of that pressure. But once in a while, there’s going to be a night like last night. A night to forget.

After Lazio took the lead, they stopped pressing and Marseille went into full attack mode to get back into the game. I wanted so much for Saliba to get a chance to score the equalizer, to give fans a reason to forgive him. But it never came. He did make a great tackle toward the end of the game, taking the ball away easily from Raul Moro to stop another goal, but I’m not sure it was enough.

The one thing defenders have that attackers don’t, is time. Us fans often give young defenders more time to develop. We understand that a 20 year old defender will make mistakes and that by the time he is 24, most of those ricks will be gone. Instead of seeing those errors as the end of their careers we know that they are chances for that player to grow.


*Or Pogba, or anyone else.


  1. This is exactly true. Those big moments get seared into our memory and we will forever associate those players with those moments. My big Arsenal moments are mostly negative, but I have a few great ones too. All the statues around the Emirates are an homage to the most iconic moments of the most iconic players the club has known. Here’s my brief list that I saw as they happened:

    =Aaron Ramsey has the most. I’ll always remember his broken leg at Stoke, but equally his brace of winners in the FA cup.
    =Mesut Ozil I will always remember for his very first Arsenal assist. Controls that long outlet with one touch and lays in on a dime for Giroud at the near post.
    =Fabregas it pains me to say I remember most despite all his wonderful Arsenal moments for that back heel at the Camp Nou.
    =Van Persie became and stayed the flying Dutchman in my imagination for that outrageous volley against… was it Charlton? That looked like a superpower from a vintage Nintendo game I played as a kid.
    =Bacary Sagna had that no-nonsense header against Spurs when we were losing 2-0 that led to a 4-2 comeback win
    =Tomas Rosicky, in the same game, hair flowing, planted a sublime shot into the far corner. My favorite Arsenal player.
    =Per Mertesacker coming out of semi-retirement to partner a very callow Rob Holding, anchoring Arsenal’s defense against Conte’s PL winning Chelsea and against all the odds, completely subdueing an in-form Diego Costa in the FA cup final.
    =Jack Wilshere leading the massive Islington crowd in a “What do we think of Tottenham?” chant!

  2. I watched that match in its entirety, and was about to post about it on the last thread. Mainly to make the point that one can be critical of a player he likes. And second to point out that Matteo Guendouzi was electric and sensational.

    Saliba had a bad touch for the first goal, and he was punished for it in clinical fashion by Immobile. He seemed to take his eye off the ball at the last second and miscontrolled.

    Up to that point, I was thinking “what a Rolls Royce of a defender”. Cool under pressure, positional smart, and able to bring the ball out like a mini Beckenbauer.

    All in, dug in folks in particular camp will jump on the young man’s back, to cits it as evidence of… you know what. Saliba made a critical error, and it led directly to a goal. And he did so in the context of an overall good game. Newsflash. The best defenders do that.

    Now Guendouzi. The Marseilles coach has unlocked the attacking side of his game, and he looks a totally different player than at Arsenal. One who joins the attack more, and to greater effect. It was his squared pass into the box that led to their equaliser. He still loves the arm waving thing a little too much, but he’s an example of what coaching can do to a young player. He’s again in the France squad for the November internationals.

    1. I’m taking your comment as referring to me. If not, no worries.

      But if yes, I didn’t actually want to talk about Saliba again. Please don’t imply that I’m ready to jump on one player, one game or one incident, in order to grind an axe. You mistake me for someone else.

      No, I don’t care if he made an error, you’re right, it’s proof of nothing.

      I don’t have a dug in position on Saliba. I have never said that he’s not ready, because I don’t know either way. I’m tired of repeating that.

      I haven’t really seen him play, and even if I had, that wouldn’t be enough information for me.

      I’ve just pointed out that all of the club’s actions have been consistent with a view that he wasn’t ready, and that they are entitled to take that view. I’ve also pointed out that it wouldn’t be surprising if he wasn’t ready because of his youth and relative inexperience. I’ve also made the point that sending him on loan is a sign of faith in him, not lack of faith. All these things seem reasonable to me, so I’ve supported this view.

      When we don’t have all the information we have to make assumptions. When we make assumptions we should assume good faith in all parties instead of assuming ill will, manipulation or lack of respect.

      Why? Because assuming good faith when there is uncertainty or lack of knowledge is the foundation of basic respect. Which is why I want to correct it when there’s an assumption that I have opinions and attitudes that I don’t in fact have.

      Most of the time this is people assuming I have an opinion when I don’t have one. I tend not to come down on one side or other of a question until I have enough information, and sometimes that’s way after the fact. I push back against views that I feel are hasty or unsupported, and this can lead people to think I am taking the opposing view when in fact I take neither.

      I hope this post is not read as condescending or aggressive or something, I am just trying to be clear what I do and don’t think, and I had some spare time.

      1. You shouldnt take the comment personally, Greg. You’re a good egg, and I certainly do not see any condescension. I enjoy your opinions, and level headed takes. On this one we have a divergence of views. You’re hardly the only person here who seems supportive of all Arteta does (sometimes seemingly regardless…).

        And I don’t think you have anything against Saliba. I get the feeling that if this coach had integrated the player, you’d have appreciated him more. We gooners like our camps, don’t we? “Arsene out”, or AKB. I don’t see the need to belong to one. I praise the manager often, but think that his handling of Saliba has been questionable, to say the least. Saying that something rings odd isnt speculative, conjecture or assumptions. It’s puzzlement. If something looks off, it usually is. And there are facts that are available for processing.

        “I haven’t really seen him play”, you say…

        …which is precisely the point of dissatisfaction for many gooners. Not play for Arsenal, but we can watch Ligue Un matches. And it’s frustrating seeing a clearly gifted player on our books not being given an opportunity. Last year after half a season not playing any football for Arsenal, the lad went to Nice and instantly demonstrated the form and match sharpness we said he needed, and on the form of half a season makes the France Olympic and u23 sides. Cue the same mumbo jumbo mouthed by the manager. Who then goes out and spends £55m (twice as much) on a lad who, though these are early days, looks like nothing special. Player instantly makes an impression at Marseilles and in his best game to date, shuts out Messi, Neymar and Mbappe.

        “….and even if I had, that wouldn’t be enough information for me”

        You didn’t need to state that 🙂

        Arteta was asked about White a week ago, and he had an interesting response. He spoke about how he liked the player instantly, the first time he spoke to him. And he carried on some more about how he liked the player at first speak. It wasn’t conclusive as to his freezing out certain players, but for me it shed some light on his approach.

        Anyway, nuff respect. I wasn’t referring to any one person in that brief passage. Take it from me… it’s always a good idea to keep fresh, working batteries in your bs meter. This summer will tell us a lot.

        1. Thanks for the very thoughtful response.

          I wondered if the bs meter would get a mention. As an ex journalist I guess you are much more naturally inclined than me to question, but I feel like the batteries in mine are changed on a regular basis. I feel like I can read between the lines of most situations. But I’m sure I have my blind spots.

          I also understand, and almost mentioned in my comment (but it was already a whole chapter) that those who have the opportunity to watch him play are going to have a different view to those of us who don’t.

          Maybe if I saw what you saw, I would feel the same frustration. But on the other hand the grass is greener etc., it’s easy to yearn for something you don’t have, especially when you feel like you could / should. The opposite of Wenger’s “prettiest wife” comment.

          I think you can split fans into those who just watch Arsenal, and those who watch a lot of other football as well. As someone who basically just watches Arsenal these days, I sometimes wonder if the gooners who enjoy watching a lot of other teams tend to be more dissatisfied with their own club.

          Maybe I avoid anything beyond MOTD because I don’t want that. Maybe I’m happy in my ignorance of all the good teams, players and managers out there. Obviously this could lead to a bit of an insular view, and I will bear this in mind. But also I know from experience that getting hung up on what you don’t have is not always a good way of seeing clearly what you do have with your whole heart.

          Good chat, thanks.

  3. Great article/writing Tim. You caused me to introspect on my emotional reactions and were bang on the money. And the update on Saliba was informative and appreciated (similarly thanks to Claude for adding the Guendo one too).

    Perhaps because we have had so many ins and outs – and not only a relatively small number of matches in which to judge so far, but also less expectation for immediate results given the age profiles plus who they were replacing – I am still trying to process the relative success of our squad building (ignoring the Cedric/Willian etc previous nonsense).

    It does seem strange that we (over?)paid a fortune for a potentially promising central defender when we already had one. That we effectively kicked out a potentially promising central midfielder when we need one. However I weigh that against the excellent purchase of Gabriel (a signing I think we sometimes almost take for granted). And the (so far) seemingly excellent purchases of Ramsdale, Sambi and potentially the two Ts.

    Not sure where I’m going with this other than in light of the first half of your article, and with the possible exception of Wenger’s trolley dash (different, because most were known quantities), I don’t remember a time when there were so many players on which my judgement has not yet been largely formed.

    Add in that with recent games and results the crack in the door to a possible amelioration of my judgement of the manager is also present, and it’s unsettling. In a good way. It’s almost like the hope is starting to come back

  4. I wouldn’t attribute either one of Saliba’s “mistakes” to his inexperience because I’ve seen 30 year old world class CB’s make even bigger howlers.
    The first one was just a reflex play on his part on a ball that went through Guendouzi’s legs, and the second one was probably the result of him taking his eyes off the ball.
    Who hasn’t done that at whatever level one might’ve played?

    Such is life of a CB. They have to bat a1000 every game while a CF on three times the salary only has to bat 300 and they raise him a statue.

  5. In honor of The Big Moment:

    “Thomas, charging through the midfield…it’s up for grabs now. Thomas! Right at the end!”

  6. Looking over the stat sheet for the match– and also the Group standings?
    It’s notable that both Lazio goals (and hence, Saliba’s miscues) occurred within minutes of the other on either side of the break at half. Results in the group and extremely low number of total goals may have driven Sarri’s choice of pressing tactics. This being the bookend match in the group stage for the two teams– having played to a 0-0 draw just two weeks ago– familiarity likely factored.

    At the least Saliba gained redemption in Payet’s late equalizer. The 2-2 draw in this group still gives Marseille the chance to recover and advance.

    Framing the larger picture as a test of Saliba’s mettle– this could be thought of as a hardening of a young defender’s character. At a stage in his development where the experience might prove more valuable than a EL group match outcome.

    1. Agree completely. From the perspective of Arsenal’s long term planning this loan is doing exactly what we want it to do. It’s raising his profile and giving him high level of experience. He will either come into the fold and displace Ben White, or he will be sold at good value to generate funds elsewhere. I really don’t get all the hand wringing over this. Top football clubs everywhere are loaning out good young players with exactly these goals in mind.

  7. This belongs in the prior post about officiating, but how is Danny Rose still on the pitch? A blatant elbow across the face for the penalty and then a cynical trip nowhere close to the ball. Not even a yellow.

    Watford are playing a smart tactical game, taking away the center and making the pitch small. We need Odegaard in this game to pick some locks. That said, we should be ahead and Auba should be on a brace.

  8. Long may Emile Smith Rowe continue knocking on the England door. Mr Southgate, there isnt a more in-form attacking midfielder among England players.

    Shout out the Ben White — another whose claims were rejected — for creating the goal opportunity.

    1. Claude,
      Just got back from the match. In actual fact ESR didn’t have a particularly good game today. However that’s 3 goals in the last 3 games. If we ignore the Carabao cup that means he’s joint leading goalscorer with Auba. I know I keep saying this, but the boy is a natural goalscorer. Put him in front of goal and he’s as cool as a cucumber. Never panics. Never blasts the ball over the bar. He just passes the ball into the net, with all the time in the world. He will get quite a few goals this season, if he stays fit. He was taken off in the 2nd half. I think there is a fitness issue there somewhere.

      Ben White played well. He’s got a bit more “true grit” than people give him credit for. Nice to see him carrying the ball forward and committing players. There aren’t many centre halves who can do that. A definite plus. A South Coast version of Franz Beckenbauer!

      Other than that, a pretty crap game. Watford are awful. Every time they lose out on a 50/50 challenge, they collapse on the floor like they’ve been shot dead. To be fair to the ref, he didn’t fall for it. Having said that, there were 6 minutes of injury time, thanks entirely to their little theatrics. In between dying and then miraculously coming to life again, they whinged and whined continually. Horrible, niggly little outfit. I hope they go down.

      1. He’s in! Squad has had some withdrawals, but this is an omission error corrected.

        Arsenal is strong and true to its core values when it has a strong England presence. I’m not English or an England supporter, but I believe this strongly and like to see it.

        Hope that White makes the next squad, and Emile seizes his chance in this one. Let’s see if Ramsdale gets a start, as he deserves to.

  9. Greg, replying here, mate…

    I’m going to retire the phrase “bs detector”. Become a tad overused, no? 🙂

    We won today, and are 5th. If Arteta is going to continue on this trajectory, he will win over his critics, including me (a sometime critic who is not implacable, and does so on the merits of the particular issue). It won’t mean that I suddenly don’t think that his actions towards some players were questionable, or that he needs to be a better manager of maverick talent. Or that I’ll suddenly accept wonky, intelligence-insulting logic (not saying anyone else does… this is me).

    What you and I have in common is a love for this club, and a desire to see it succeed. And as much as Im skeptical about some important aspects of Mikel’s management, if he wins, we win.

    Fourth is in play. He has been given the tools, the money and the opportunity of not having Europe day distractions, to deliver that. I for one am holding him to a tougher standard that top 7.

    Oh, and I loved our doubled barreled midfield… Maitland-Niles and Sambi-Lokonga…


    1. Not giving fouls away is such an important part of a central defender’s repertoire. He physically dominated Josh King without ever fouling him. Massive. That booking was for a very debatable high foot.

  10. It seems to me that Arteta’s priority is not how a player plays in a game, but how he preforms in training.

    Whilst I can see a certain logic in that, it belies the fact that some players might may perform better in the atmosphere of a game than in training.

    Maybe that is where the fallout with Ozil started.

    An intelligent passer of the ball, one who can unlock a defence without even looking and who can pass the ball over distance to land on a sixpence (or to you yanks, a one cent piece), do this by instinct so that no matter how much running around they may do in training is not likely to affect their ability to “do the business” in the atmosphere and pressure of an actual match.

    That Arteta seems to take an instant liking or a disliking to a player seems to be the case, so that Saliba seems to have jarred his teeth at an early stage.

    All players make mistakes, some result in goals, but mostly they don’t.

    Some mistakes may be not so much a mistake but the additional skill of someone else.

    That we are seeing a young player with a heavy price tag, doing so well elsewhere, without even having played once, even in a friendly, is a sign that something is really wrong here.

    Whist we continue to scrape past poor teams it might give the impression to many that all is well, when it clearly is not,.

    The treatment of Saliba and so many others is an indication of an underlying problem that will continue to fester whilst we manage to climb up the table with one unconvincing display after another, What lies under the surface usually eventually comes out.

    1. jj – i’ve been largely in your camp – having deep misgivings about Arteta. I’ve found the last few games reason to reconsider. Something’s dawned on me about Arteta. Say what you want about the football being lackluster- even at our worst – he doesn’t seem to have lost the players. In fact. the opposite seems to be true. They are fiercely loyal and behind him, by all accounts. The fact that Lacazette – a guy who’s almost certainly out the door this summer – is playing with fire in his belly speaks volumes about the level of commitment Arteta has engendered in the team. Auba has also spoken about it. For all his warts, Xhaka too has been given chances to resurrect his image here. And the young players seem 100% onboard.

      Arteta inherited a team with a terrible culture. Looking back, I think we didn’t fully appreciate the enormity of the squad problem he had to deal with. Wages, training habits, and incompatibility with his vision of how he wanted the team to play. He chose to loan/sell guys he perceived as not on board. At the time in that situation, it may have been right to establish HIS way, even if that meant sacrificing talented players. He could have tried to massage egos and keep everyone happy, but he believed that came at a big cost. He had to prioritize, and any locker room poison had to be eliminated. Arteta is clearly a guy who has zero appetite for drama. He’s overseen a great purge and rebuild, and still managed an FA cup win.

      We’ve wandered in the desert for a long time, but some of that is down to the roster that needed a complete overhaul. This young team is playing with fire, enthusiasm, and an increasingly more interesting style of play. It’s far from perfect, but I have to give credit where it’s due – Mikel has built momentum and confidence in a team while weeding out a lot of problem players. Moving on from Arsene was never going to be easy (see ManU), but I am trying to be receptive to the idea that Arteta is actually making tangible improvements, and it’s starting to show on the pitch. Sp*rs, Villa, Leicester and now Watford were all very good performances – much more entertaining and confident. I’m seeing reason for optimism.

      1. +1

        I share your sentiments to a tee, LA. There were a number of things that I didn’t like about MA, not least the style of football he had us playing.

        My vote at the end of last season was to cut ties. I disagreed with Doc, Greg and others about giving him more time.

        However sitting here today, I admit I was wrong and that their argument was correct and even if things start to slip again MA deserves to the end of the season (leaving aside who the heck is there available to replace him?!).

        By the way, AMN’s performance this weekend another amazing example of the commitment you refer to, by a guy who was openly furious over the summer.

  11. I agree with your post on negative bias for defenders. Very rarely do defenders win Ballon dòr, which they ofc should. Thats sort of worth of a post maybe?

    Though surely its easier to play having the ball infront coming towards you than running forward with the ball being played from behind?

    I think defenders have an edge there.

  12. Laundering. You will find that the FA Cup win came before the ‘purge’, not after it.

    Let us wait and see.

    All I would say is I assume that I was watching a different game than you did not Sunday.

    Also, of course the younger players have knuckled down to please arteta as they gave seen what happens to those players who don’t.

    Straight forward fear.

    I suspect it may be that rather than his message or process.

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