Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Festive fixtures, squad management, Covid consistency, refs

Morning all, an interesting week ahead. It’s sort of flown under the radar a bit, but there’s a Carabao Cup quarter-final tomorrow night against Sunderland, before we head into the festive fixtures next weekend.

I will write more about Sunderland tomorrow, but I fully expect Mikel Arteta to rotate the absolute bollix out of his team for this one. Having played three tough Premier League fixtures inside a week, there are bound to be some aches and pains. The manager already referenced the load of players when talking about the injury to Takehiro Tomiyasu, saying:

He’s got a big load on him because he’s played every single minute since he’s joined us and even this week he’s been struggling a little bit. We decided to take him off, he wasn’t 100 per cent confident to continue in the game, and hopefully he’s not injured.

He can’t be the only one. Emile Smith Rowe, for example, has been used sparingly in the last couple of games after an injury of his own, and while his cameos have been very effective and the blossoming Gabriel Martinelli has ensured we’ve coped well without him, it’s hard not to think a certain amount of caution is being applied here.

It comes into sharp focus at the weekend and early next week when the fixture list has served up two games inside 48 hours which, frankly, is ludicrous. We travel to Norwich for a 3pm kick off on Sunday, then on Tuesday we have a 12.30 kick off at home to Wolves. It seems particularly unfair to have the early kick off, but it is what it is and managing his squad to cope with this schedule is something we’re just going to have to do.

There might be a slight reprieve, as in The Athletic (£), David Ornstein reports that the Premier League are considering the postponement of that second round of fixtures (Dec 28-30) due to the rise in Covid cases. Six games were called off this weekend because of players/staff testing positive for the virus, and even yesterday Chelsea sought to have their game called off because of an outbreak in their squad. Thomas Tuchel said:

“It is not safe. We talk about protecting players and a safe environment but it is not safe. I would be not surprised if the next test shows up and we have more positives. How should it stop if we sit in the bus and have dinners and just stay together like nothing happened?”

Once more though, the lack of clarity from the Premier League about what exactly is required for a game to be called off has caused some consternation. After the win over Leeds on Saturday, Arteta was asked about the need for consistency (apparently Man Utd had fewer players test positive for Covid than we did when our call for a postponement was refused – their game against Brentford was called off, ours was not). He said:

That’s what we want, that we all play under the same rules. Whether we are affected or not, everybody is affected in the same way, and if that’s the case, everybody is going to accept it. They have to come forward and explain.

It seems absurd that nearly two years into this pandemic they’re still making decisions on a case by case basis, and that there aren’t very clear guidelines/rules regarding this scenario. It’s not as if they haven’t had time, and surely with all the advice and expertise at their disposal, they must have been told this was something that was going to be around for a while. It wasn’t just going to go away, so why are there no specific rules?

As it is, Arsenal have had two players test positive in the last week – Pablo Mari and Albert Sambi Lokonga. Whether that remains the extent of it, we’ll have to wait and see. They were both around the training ground, the dressing rooms, the indoor spaces when they ate together etc, so let’s hope it’s not more serious, and hopefully both of them stay healthy until such time as they can return.

Elsewhere, I know ref talk is kinda boring but the game between Sp*rs and Liverpool yesterday was a perfect illustration of the inconsistency of decision making. Harry Kane didn’t get a red card for a potential leg-breaker, whereas Andy Robertson was sent off (deservedly) for a wild swing which barely made contact with the opponent. However, only one of the incidents saw the referee advised to take a second look at the pitch-side monitor. Why? Kane’s was far worse and much more dangerous – Robertson is lucky he got his leg up, because otherwise he’d have been seriously, seriously injured.

I know, England captain, golden boy, and all that, but it’s so frustrating because this is exactly the stuff that VAR was supposed to sort out. Instead, we have a scenario where two red card incidents are being officiated differently, and it’s no wonder that fans lose their minds when they see things like that happening. Kane’s was worse than Xhaka’s against Man City by some distance, yet the wild variance of how refs view these incidents can’t be fully explained by Xhaka being Xhaka and Kane being England captain.

I still think about this on a regular basis and wonder how on earth a referee, assistants, and a bunch of people in the VAR truck with the benefit of all the replays in the world didn’t view it as anything other than an immediate, straight red card (McArthur was booked for it, I’ve seen a few people say it wasn’t even a yellow but it was).


I say this on a weekend when it has to be acknowledged that Xhaka, for once in his life, actually got away with some stuff. He was lucky to avoid a yellow card for standing in front of a free kick, and seconds later he stamped his studs onto Raphinha’s ankle – a challenge I felt sure was going to be referred to VAR and the inevitable would happen. It was one of those which was already very high on the ITWGX (If That Was Granit Xhaka) index, so I don’t know what kind of stars aligned to see him get off scot-free. Not least because a Leeds player was booked for almost exactly the same foul a couple of minutes later (although he went to ground so it might have been viewed differently).

I fully accept that refereeing is a difficult job, but isn’t that why VAR was introduced? Maybe we get more marginal offside decisions right these days, and we’ve absolutely got on top of the scourge of football – the handball that nobody thinks is a handball and which barely hit the hand anyway – but without feedback, without discussion, without highlighting some of these inconsistencies, there won’t ever be improvement.

Not until there is some kind of accountability or performance review process for the PGMOL and their officials. Liverpool were denied an obvious penalty yesterday because the referee said the player stopped to draw contact (he didn’t). It’s almost as if they’re making stuff up as they go along, safe in the knowledge that whatever they do and however they do it, there are no consequences. If every other profession in the game is subject to performance review, when careers literally hinge on how well you do, how is it possible the refs aren’t?

Anyway, let’s leave it there. James and I will be recording the Arsecast Extra for you this morning. Keep an eye out for the call for questions on Twitter @gunnerblog and @arseblog on Twitter with the hashtag #arsecastextra – or if you’re on Arseblog Member on Patreon, leave your question in the #arsecast-extra-questions channel on our Discord server.

Podcast should be out around lunchtime, so until then, take it easy.

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