Arsenal breezed past Sevilla 2-0 at home last night in a soporific match which saw Saka and Martinelli play starring roles and where the referee once again allowed Bukayo Saka to be kicked until he was eventually taken off the pitch as a precaution.
Arsenal took the unusual action last week of publicly backing manager Mikel Arteta with an official statement after he called into question the Premier League officials’ judgement. In a fiery match which saw Bruno Guimaraes get away with an intentional assault on Jorginho and Joelinton provide an “assist” on the only goal of the game when he shoved Gabriel onto the ground from behind, Arteta was justifiably angry about the treatment his team has received this season. Newcastle have pulled this Stoke on Tyne routine in the past with Arsenal and to good effect as well. But a big reason why Arteta may have come out so strongly and why the club aggressively backed him is that teams have been clearly targeting Bukayo Saka for foul treatment all season.
Saka has suffered 36 fouls in 13.8 full90 equivalents or about 2.5 fouls per game but that doesn’t tell the real story. Most teams do not deploy “hack a Saka” defense. In his 18 appearances this season there are 11 matches with 2 or fewer fouls on Saka but the problem is that there are 7 matches where he has clearly been targeted by the opposition for rough treatment (Palace 4, Everton 4, Spurs 3, Chelsea 3, Sevilla 3, Newcastle 5, and Sevilla 5). That is 7 matches where he has received 27 of his 36 fouls, or put another way he has gotten 75% of his fouls in just 39% of his matches.
And it’s crucial to recognize that these are just the fouls that are being called. Bukayo Saka is fouled often and relentlessly in these matches but the officials don’t call them all. And before you try to say that the officials are getting all the calls correct, I will point you to the fact that they let Bruno forearm smash Jorginho in the head without a call. They are clearly not calling all of the fouls that are happening in a game.
Highlighting fouls on Saka and foul play in general might be a double-edged sword, however. Arsenal’s Kai Havertz got away with one against Newcastle himself and he has committed 29 fouls in his 13 full90 equivalents this season and Eddie Nketiah is another Arsenal player who doesn’t hold back in a challenge. Neither of them have picked up a red card this season but Havertz has 5 yellows (all competitions) and easily could have been sent off against Newcastle.
It shouldn’t be a problem to highlight the fouls the opponents are giving out and to also tell Havertz and Nketiah to stop going in to tackles so late. Arteta was able to cure Granit Xhaka of this exact same problem so, unless Havertz is incurable, he should be able to work the same magic. It might also raise the alarm bells on the tactic that Arsenal use on corners where they put Benjamin White directly on the opposition keeper in order to shield, block, and obstruct the opponent. That was a favorite tactic of Bolton, Stoke, and Burnley whenever they faced Arsenal. White has been called for this a few times but more attention could mean more calls going against us on corners, and ironically I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see the officials pay extra special attention to any hands that are used by any Arsenal player on any aerial duel and make sure that they call that foul and even chalk off an Arsenal goal for the exact thing that Joelinton just got away with against Arsenal.
But more to the point is that if the Arsenal players are committing the same fouls, I would want them also punished. In fact, that’s all any of us really want is for the matches to be officiated in a fair and even way and for egregious calls like the two that Newcastle got away with to be called correctly. If that happens then players like Saka will get the protection they need and Mikel Arteta and Arsenal Football Club will no longer need to make statements and send documents to the PGMOL listing the huge number of bad calls that have gone against us and which cost Arsenal points in the title race last season.
Football Weekly Losing Their Rag
I’m a Guardian supporter (paid subscriber) and usually I find that the Football Weekly podcast is a decent (if somewhat biased in favor of Spurs) roundup of Premier League happenings and I genuinely enjoy the podcast when Philippe Auclair is a guest, because he is literally the only sports journalist on that show who is willing to speak truth to power. But this week they have gone off the rails and I am, as a result, cancelling my Guardian subscription.
First, the presenter, Max Rushden, is a Spurs supporter. He pretends to also support some other lower level team but he is a Spurs supporter and an uncritical champion of Spurs coach Ange Postecoglou, going so far as to say he loves Ange. That, of course, is his right but where I feel like this becomes a problem is when these journalists (which ostensibly they are, even if this is an opinion program masquerading as journalism) allow their biases to drive the content of the show. The Guardian Football Weekly is supposed to be a weekly roundup of football not a weekly breakdown of why Tottenham are so amazing and why Arsenal are so terrible. And the Football Weekly podcast should be more neutral and they should leave the biased podcasting to shows that are explicitly fan podcasts, for which there are an untold number.
This week Max and Barry have engaged in three episodes of pearl clutching at the fact that Mikel Arteta and Arsenal football club have had the temerity to complain about the referees. Going in two footed these two hacks have deliberately left off key information about the Newcastle match and have decided to uncritically use Ange Postecoglou as a foil for Mikel Arteta – who is supposedly everything that is wrong with modern football.
The key information that I haven’t once heard these men mention is that Bruno Guimaraes elbow smashed Jorginho in the face, VAR had a look at this deliberately violent act – which came at a time when Bruno was clearly seething, which proves intent – and chose not to punish the act. This is a League where VAR have seen players sent off for vaguely touching another man on the throat and yet this clearly deliberate elbow to the head – which is an assault – warranted no mention by the pearl clutchers who wanted to paint Arteta as the one who is out of control.
This is a typical response from white men in power who are trying to defend the white male power structures which are being criticized. They do not to accept any criticism of those power structures and intentionally or unintentionally leave off key facts in order to build a narrative which is used to diminish and dismiss criticism as “crazy” or “out of control”. It’s a lot easier to make it look like Arteta is “crazy” if you don’t even mention the Bruno elbow and just talk about how “the push in the back, was maybe a foul or maybe not”. In that nicely built little narrative, it does indeed look like Mikel Arteta and Arsenal have “overreacted” and that this wasn’t a big deal.
The next day they were handed a nice little meaty bone to suck on when Ange Postecoglou aimed what looked like a critique at Arteta say that he personally doesn’t criticize refs and that managers shouldn’t be criticizing refs because it’s diminishing their authority. The two uncritically bounced that quote around as ebulliently as a kitten playing with a toy while anyone with even two functioning brain cells, who has lived more than 10 years, and has the ability to use Google would be able to find quotes of Ange Postecoglou ripping the officials after Celtic didn’t get a penalty call that he thought they should have, and by all accounts they should have had:
“It’s a penalty. I’ve seen people doing all sorts of mental gymnastics trying to show why it’s not a penalty which probably suggests it is, so stop trying to find a reason it’s not.
“It’s just really confusing now for players in the box to know what they can or can’t do because there’s been zero consistency in the decisions being made. Over the course of a season, these things usually even themselves out.
“But when I look at the introduction of VAR and the decisions that have gone against us in particular, there’s zero chance that’s going to even out between now and the end of the year because it’s just remarkable that we’ve had at least three major decisions go against us. We can just say it comes down to interpretation but I guarantee you that if that game finished two-all and it was Rangers that were denied that decision the talk this week would be how that was a title-defining decision.
“The fact that it wasn’t because we still got a result, as we have in all the other games when decisions have gone against us, it doesn’t mean we should ignore it because that could be a team that gets relegated on a decision like that.”
(Clutches pearls) Oh I do declare, the hypocrisy!
Of course he complained about the officials, every coach complains about the officials. And more to the point, coaches should be allowed to complain about the officials. The real danger isn’t that people will complain or point out failures, its that people will be censured or even prevented from pointing out failures. We absolutely should not want a league where it is forbidden – whether through official rules or through the pressure of public mockery that Max and Barry are engaging in – to criticize mistakes.
And let’s make it clear what they are defending: they are defending a player violently elbowing an opponent in the head. I would think that no person with at least two working brain cells would even remotely defend that. It’s literally an indefensible act. And I would also think that anyone who had even a modicum of empathy would understand why Arteta and Arsenal are so angry that that act was allowed to happen in this day and age. This isn’t 1996. There are cameras everywhere. The VAR officials (and maybe even the on-field official?) looked at what happened and inexplicably chose not to recommend a red card. Is this REALLY what we want football matches to be like? That is what they are defending when they mock Arteta and why it is so egregious that they conveniently refuse to even mention it. They don’t mention it because it undermines their nice little recently built narrative that “referees are under assault!!!”
Criticism and complaints are absolutely necessary and are a part of sport. Players, managers, journalists and even fans are criticized, critiqued, ridiculed, and are in many ways told to change their behavior. It’s fair to criticize Arteta for his statements and Arsenal for their statements but it is also absolutely necessary for Arteta to be allowed to criticize the referees in this game. Painting it as “beyond the pale” because it wasn’t done in the way that you would like, in a way that maybe made people uncomfortable or seemed a bit over the top, is a bald attempt to stop him from criticizing an institution which NEEDS to be critiqued, which needs to change. How many apologies have Arsenal received from the referees this season? There is obviously something wrong.
But what Max and Barry have decided to double and now triple down on is their complaint about people complaining about VAR. It seems there are now just two fans, those who complain about VAR and those who complain about those who complain about VAR. And what’s incredible is that in the very latest episode of VAR Weekly, Max and Barry spent the vast majority of their talking time complaining about VAR, and the handball law, and pretty much every other law in football. They even complained about how often Saka is fouled! Then they moved on to further criticism of Mikel Arteta, the third episode this week. You’d think he shat in Barry’s beer. It seems like they have no problem complaining or criticizing referees, but just need everyone to do it exactly the way that they do.