“He’s fine, he got kicked quite a lot today again, but he’s going to have to deal with that, not every week, but every three days and sometimes in training as well because it’s his game and teams are not stupid and they want to stop him.” This was Mikel Arteta’s assessment of the treatment meted out to Bukayo Saka by Aston Villa players on Saturday.
Saka spent much of the game limping after catching a few low blows on his ankle. It’s a stadium where Saka has become accustomed to bumps and bruises, last season, then Villa coach Steven Gerrard was irked by the player complaining to the referee at half-time after another series of rough collisions.
This was Saka’s post-game assessment on that occasion, which grated with Gerrard, “I wasn’t complaining to the ref but I just wanted to let him know that that’s my game, running at players with pace and sometimes I need a bit more protection when players are purposefully trying to kick me.” Gerrard’s counter was pithy.
“I’m sitting here now with screws in my hips, I’ve had about 16 operations, I’m struggling to go to the gym at the moment. That’s all on the back of earning a living in English football. He’ll learn and he’ll learn quick.” This ‘in my day’ attitude probably goes some way to explaining why Gerrard is currently unemployed in the coaching sense.
However, Arteta’s assessment from Saturday hardly offered a valedictory arm around Saka’s shoulder. The fact that he referenced training sessions as a likely avenue for a tap on the ankles was, in my view, revealing too. Arsenal supporters, scarred by seeing some of their most talented young players leave football pitches wearing oxygen masks over the years, are relatively united in their frustration at how the rough stuff is lightly dealt with when it comes to Saka.
I am sure that privately Arteta shares at least some of that frustration. I think his reluctance to meet it head on publicly is about not creating a victim complex around the player. He wants the player to dust himself down and drive at the defender again and again and I think Arteta fears that if he tries to make Saka a martyr, there is a risk of the player collapsing into self-pity.
Earlier this season, Arteta addressed the question of not resting Saka for Europa League games. “Look at the top players in the world, they play 70 matches, every three days and make the difference and win the game. You want to be at the top, you have to be able to do that. And if we start to put something different in the mind of a young player, I think we are making a huge mistake because then [he would] be like ‘No, I don’t play now, on astroturf I don’t play’.
“I don’t want that. I want them to be ruthless every three days. I want them knocking on my door (saying) ‘I want to play, I want to win the game’. There is no fitness coach in the world that is going to tell me that they cannot do it, because I’ve seen it. 72 games and scored 50 goals. The players that score 50 goals do not play 38 games in the season, it’s just impossible.”
I think there is something similar at play when it comes to Saka being kicked so often. Arteta wants Saka to bloom into one of the best five players in the world and the likes of Messi and, as much as it sticks in my craw to say it, even Ronaldo don’t complain about being taken out. In both of their careers, they have refused to be seen as victims and, consequently, I think teams stopped targeting them physically.
Whereas I look at Neymar, in a very similar tier of talent, and he has dealt with “mistimed tackles” in a very different way during his career. Here he is, now in his 30s, still an exceptional player but his ankle injuries are as sure a sign of spring as the first flower. I think that Arteta sees a conflict between complaining about the rough stuff and developing Saka into a ruthless attacker.
In terms of fouls drawn, Saka only overtook Gabriel Jesus in that statistic this season at Villa Park on Saturday. Jesus is fouled 2.81 times per 90 while Saka is fouled on average 1.82 times. Now, this data is slightly flawed because it doesn’t take into account the severity of the fouls and it only accounts for fouls that are actually called.
Had really hoped that Saka being kicked and not getting fouls throughout the World Cup would help the English public see what we see every week but he's not reffed any more fairly now and is getting booed more loudly.
— Lewis (@LGAmbrose) February 18, 2023
It certainly feels like referees permit greater force on Saka. However, I don’t think we can rule out our own emotions, as fans, in forging this perception. We are certainly more preoccupied with how Saka is refereed compared to Gabriel Jesus and there’s probably a large extent to which that is down to his status as an academy product.
He feels like he is ‘ours’ and that makes us feel more protective of him. We all remember feeling very similarly about a similarly precocious academy talent in Jack Wilshere. Wilshere’s lilting dribbling style puts us in mind of Saka and Wilshere retired from football at the age of 30. The seeming spirit of permissiveness when it comes to challenges on Saka also provide a stark contrast to the way England captain Harry Kane is marshalled by match officials.
But there is a difference in intent there too. Kane plays as a centre-forward and he is actively trying to win set-pieces for his team- he has conjured a number of conniving ways to do it too. That isn’t Saka’s game, Saka doesn’t want to be fouled, he wants to show his opponents a clean pair of heels. We have to be honest too and say that he is rarely absolutely butchered as he likely would have been on the mud-laden fields of the 1970s.
The fouls on Saka are usually frustratingly cumulative, death by a thousand cut types. He was hurt at Villa on Saturday by an accumulation of fouls by different players, none of which really warranted a red card and that is difficult to deal with as a match official- on the other hand there doesn’t seem to be much of a willingness to try.
A lot of Arsenal fans (myself included) have at least implied a level of racial bias in how Saka is officiated. I hope that PGMOL have these discussions internally. Any organisation (or individual) should repeatedly check themselves for potential bias and prejudice in a spirit of openness rather than defensiveness.
This is especially crucial for an organisation like PGMOL, who have not been able to produce a top-flight referee of colour in going on two decades now. However, it is also difficult and nuanced to talk about, especially for a white person. I don’t really have the personal experience of the subject or the right to toss the racism grenade at match officials without proper evidence.
Racism is too important a subject to totally surrender to football tribalism. I could not confidently rule out the idea that I am too sensitive about this particular subject to be a competent handler and I think the subject is too important for me to use it as a stick to hit referees with because I don’t like some of the decisions they make, it warrants more probing and serious interrogation than that.
There are any number of rigorous stress tests that competent professionals can administer to interrogate something like racial bias in decision making and I really hope PGMOL is open to it and not just because Arsenal fans are a bit tired of Saka getting kicked and then being booked for retaliating. It should be regularly baked into the process of an organisation whose entire purpose is about decision-making. We don’t know whether that happens because under Mike Riley’s leadership, PGMOL led a very opaque existence and I hope Howard Webb can change that.
In the meantime, I think Arteta’s route around this issue has sporting merit, even if it is going to test our patience as supporters. As fans, we can (and will) continue to make noise and howl and bitch and moan in the hope that our complaints generate sufficient critical mass to penetrate the consciousness of the refereeing class- it is likely to be a slow and maybe even futile trickle-down process though, I fear.
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