Let’s start with some administration.
As my long-time readers know, I don’t like talking about officials but it’s rare that the PGMOL admits that an official has made a mistake and so when they do, I think it’s completely fair game to have a lengthy discussion about the mistake. And I also think supporters have every right to be angry when the officials admit that they were wrong. This bypasses “conspiracy” talk and talk about “unconscious bias” and goes straight into “we fucked up” and “ok, so what are you going to do about it” territory.
PGMOL released a statement today that they have contacted Arsenal to discuss the “significant errors” in the match against Brentford. In that match Lee Mason (more on him in a minute) was the VAR official and on the only Brentford goal, he checked for an initial offside, checked for a foul on Gabriel, but apparently “forgot” to draw the lines for his offside check on the penultimate pass for the goal.
If I want to be kind to Mason, I suppose I could understand why he would merely eyeball it rather than draw lines: referees are under a huge pressure to make VAR calls quickly, so maybe he rushed it? But I don’t feel like being kind to Lee Mason. Lee Mason was the VAR official in the Man U – Arsenal match earlier this season, and was the person who told the on-field official to overturn Martinelli’s goal for a “foul” on Eriksen. He compounded that error with another the next day in a match between Newcastle and Crystal Palace, in which he told the official to rule off a Newcastle goal because of a “foul” by Joe Willock. The League and the PGMOL dropped him for the next week’s matches and would later admit that both calls were part of a batch of bad calls this season (after an independent panel reviewed the incidents).
The problem I have here is that Lee Mason is being sacrificed in public as the one bad apple in the bunch. But Lee Mason isn’t the problem, he’s a symptom of the larger problems in the Premier League with refereeing. As we have spoken about here extensively, the problems in the Premier League are
– Lack of transparency (both during the matches and after)
– Lack of diversity (geographic, racial, gender)
– Culture of Omerta (the first rule about ref club is that we don’t talk about ref club)
– Clinging to tradition (the old boy’s club, this is how we call things in England, back in my day, etc.)
The PGMOL is aware of many of these issues. For example, they are at least admitting wrongdoing which they almost never did before and they have explicitly started fast tracking minority referees into the top levels. So, perhaps, this stuff will start to change? But it doesn’t do us any good now. Arsenal have had two of the worst calls of the season go against us (Man U and now Brentford) and while it’s impossible to say that they cost us points (we have no idea what would have happened if the calls had gone differently) it is hugely frustrating to see goals awarded or taken away erroneously.
I would also like to just add one more idea when it comes to refereeing. The Premier League has the best players from all over the world, why not hire the best referees from all over the world as well? I watch football from all the top league in Europe (and also Spain) and there are some great refs in those leagues. There are also great refs in Africa, Asia, and even the USA. Surely, for a League that bills itself as the best in the world, which draws viewers from all over the world, with the best fans in the world, they should also have the best refs in the world? It’s unreasonable to expect a small country like England to produce 100 world class referees. Instead, they should be recruiting from all over the world, offering the best pay (to insure against corruption), and providing a world class training and fitness center. And they should have a world class CEO running the referee corporation. In fact, it’s incredibly strange that referees in the Premier League are run in such a provincial, backwards way.
As for the match, well, it sucked.
Unlike Everton, who largely played a midblock, Brentford played a low block with a quick high press. This defensive scheme – combined with some fundamental Arsenal conservatism – forced Arsenal to turn around and pass back, or lose possession and risk a counter. Which is how Arsenal played for the first half. Watching Arsenal attackers refuse to try dribble penetration in the box in that first half was frustrating. I’m glad Arteta changed that in the 2nd half, allowing Arsenal to attack more freely, but it was nearly a case of too little too late.
I said it in the preview and it bears saying again, Arsenal deeply misses Gabriel Jesus. For the first 40 minutes yesterday, Arsenal looked toothless in attack. Nketiah had just 14 touches (he finished with 43), Martinelli tried 0 dribbles, even Saka was struggling to get on the ball. Arteta tried several things at that point: switched Saka and Martinelli, let Nelli go centrally, put Nketiah wide, and Brentford struggled to adapt It was one of our best patches in the game.
And to the team and manager’s credit in the 2nd half, they continued trying to attack. Nketiah redeemed himself several times in that 2nd half, in my opinion, lacking just a little bit of that top quality which Gabriel Jesus has. And Arsenal did get the goal when Martinelli was brought off and Trosard was brought on; Trossard was refreshingly direct and scored his debut goal for the Arsenal.
In attack Brentford entirely bypassed their midfield, launching to Toney with nearly every pass. The idea was for Toney to “bully” Saliba, to get Saliba to get close to him and then dive to win free kicks. In a way, it was a disappointing tactic from Frank Thomas. It felt fairly old school (very Kevin Davies for Bolton) and in a lot of ways like he didn’t trust the quality of his team in possession. But in another way it’s hard to argue with the results; they dominated Arsenal in the first half in terms of good chances created, and did a great job overall limiting Arsenal’s attack.
They knew that this attacking and defending plan wouldn’t work every time, and they didn’t need it to. They just needed to get a few calls, a few errors, and keep Arsenal from turning and taking on defenders at the top of the box to prevent Arsenal from taking the best shots and they hoped to get a point or more, which they did.
Next up is Man City on Wednesday. Obviously, it’s too early to say that the title’s gone – even if Arsenal lose to City on Wednesday – but (even refs aside) this month has put a big dent in the title ambitions so far and perhaps even dragged Arsenal back down to earth a bit.