Thursday, January 20, 2022

Looking for the edge

During Man City’s Amazon: All Or Nothing season, there was a clip of Pep Guardiola’s assistant, one Mikel Arteta, handing out some dressing room instructions to players.

Seemingly addressing City’s midfielders (Kevin de Bruyne, Ilkay Gundogan, and David Silva), he urged them to ‘make fouls. If there is a transition, make a foul.’

It came to mind after the controversy over Arsenal’s goal against Watford on Sunday. Claudio Ranieri, the Italian Ned Flanders of football management, was dilly-ding, dilly-dong mad as hell that we didn’t give them the ball back after Danny Rose had kicked it out. Asked about it by Sky Sports afterwards, Mikel Arteta said:

What I would say is that I cannot think of another club or team that is more honest and sometimes naive as us.

I don’t think too many would argue that we have been naive at times, and while some might argue that comes with the territory of having a young team, I think it’s been an issue for some time. It definitely precedes this new youthful iteration of the side. How many times have we heard about how Arsenal lack a bit of edge, that cynicism that others have? It’s a difficult line though, not least because whenever we do have a bit of bite, or there’s a contentious tackle, we seem to receive the maximum punishment every time, along with maximum criticism in the press.

On the other hand, when stuff is inflicted on us, we’re soft for objecting to it, and it seems to be – biased and all as I most certainly am – that the opposition get away with a lot more than we do. Just think about the last few games.

1 – James McArthur boots Bukayo Saka in the legs, nowhere near the ball, yet it wasn’t deemed sufficient for a red card by either the referee or VAR who had replay after replay of McArthur trying to punt an Arsenal player over the bar. We have to look at ourselves for the way we gave the goals away against Palace, and deserve criticism for that, but if we’d been playing against 10 men, it would likely have been a different game.

2 – Jonny Evans hauls down Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and only receives a yellow card. The same foul in two other Premier League games the same weekend was a red. It didn’t really matter too much because we won that game, but as I said, that same foul by an Arsenal player (Xhaka, Luiz during his time), would unquestionably have been red.

3 – Danny Rose hacked his way around the pitch like Danny de Vito on PCP during the 1-0 win over Watford. How he escaped a booking before he gave the penalty away remains baffling to me, and how the clothesline challenge on Lacazette to concede the spot-kick wasn’t deemed at least a booking is incredible. A Watford player did see red in the end, but as I wrote yesterday, their tactics involved making many fouls. They made 19 fouls and got 3 yellow cards + 1 second yellow, we made 6 fouls and got 4 yellow cards.

Just to be clear: I’m not suggesting there’s a conspiracy, just a lot of bad, inconsistent officiating, but on that basis, I find people getting wound up about Arsenal not putting the ball out for a player who pretended to be injured a bit much. As we talked about on the Arsecast Extra, it was interesting to note one of our more experienced players – Alex Lacazette – took the throw which saw us keep the ball. I’d love to know if he just took it without thinking, or if he fully understood the implications. Players know the conventions, of course, but either way, I’m glad he did, not least because we needed a goal and from that the goal came.

This is a young team, and maybe that’s a way to bring about a bit of change in terms of how we’re treated. A referee won’t ever give Granit Xhaka the benefit of the doubt when there’s a decision to be made. Rightly or wrongly he has a reputation which procedes him, but I wonder if someone like an innocent looking Ben White might get away with a bit more. There was a moment in the Watford game when Gabriel and White came across to cover Josh King, and having been on the end of a straight arm from the opposition striker earlier in the game, the Brazilian just timed his run to ‘accidentally’ clatter him, leaving him in a heap on the floor. The referee played on.

It’s not that I’m necessarily endorsing foul play, but you need a bit of that. If you’re perceived as a soft touch, teams will try and take advantage of it. If you’re a team who is viewed as a bit nice, one that doesn’t make a lot of fouls, the fouls stand out and you get booked more often. I’m not quite sure how that tallies with the cards we got against Watford to be honest, but in truth, I think that was more down to the referee on the day than the egregiousness of our indiscretions.

I know Mikel Arteta has plenty to do with this group of players, and things like chance creation, goalscoring, and control of in-game situations are right at the very top of his list, but instilling a bit of cynicism to our play won’t hurt either. For all Pep Guardiola’s denials about never telling his players to do it, their rotational fouling has been an effective tactic, and I know this because we’ve been on the other end of it. I know this because every team he has ever managed has done it. They get away with more because they’re seen as a ‘pure’ footballing team, but it’s not true. They are brilliant but also bastardly.

I don’t know if we’ll ever shake the reputation we have. It’s followed us for years. We’re an easy club to give red cards to. Ask Arsene Wenger. Even in the early stages of Arteta’s time we got a lot, although about 70% of them were David Luiz. I do think the fresh-faced, England-international-inspired young team might have scope to address this a little bit though, so let’s see what happens.

Right, that’s it for this morning. For some extra reading, Lewis’ latest Tactics Column features analysis of Ainsley Maitland-Niles performance against Watford, well worth your time.

I’ll leave you with the Arsecast Extra if you haven’t had a chance to listen. Lots on the Watford game, obviously, but also a long discussion about Josh Kroenke’s interview with Sky. All the links you need are below, enjoy!

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