Saturday, June 10, 2023

Weekend thoughts + Protect Bukayo Saka

Good Monday to you all.

All in all a decent weekend for Arsenal. I watched Match of the Day yesterday, and was flummoxed by Man City’s draw with Nottingham Forest. Yes, I know – that’s football. Some days you have chances and they just won’t go in, but still. It was a bit mad.

How do you even classify something like Erling Haaland smashing the ball over the bar from 6 yards? When a striker has scored as many goals as he has in a season it’s hard to be critical of him, but isn’t it just as big a mistake as a goalkeeper letting one slip between his hands? Maybe there isn’t a right answer, I’m just glad he fluffed his lines.

Behind them, Man Utd keep winning. I know we’ve had a difficult little run in the last few weeks, but in the context of United’s form with eight wins in the last eleven Premier League games, our win over them looks even more impressive. And potentially important. They may have played a game more than us, but the gap is now just five points. This isn’t a two-horse race for the title, there’s a third runner. An old familiar horse indeed.

What else? Well, now that the dust has settled and we took three points off Villa, can we talk about the treatment that Bukayo Saka continues to receive? On Saturday, just before half-time, he was on the end of a sneaky, nasty foul from Coutinho. If you watch the replay, you can see he does a really quick ‘scissors’ with both feet, jumping into Saka’s ankles from behind.

The Arsenal man reacted, which I was glad to see because I feel like part of the solution to this is for him to be perceived as a player who won’t just take the kicks. However, in the subsequent pushing and shoving, Saka ended up being yellow carded, while Coutinho got away without one. The sly thing about this foul was that earlier in the half, Saka got studs down the back of his Achilles, so much so his boot flew off, and the referee just played on. Coutinho knew he was sore there, and went in at him again.

When you see Michail Antonio booked for a ‘foul’ on Harry Kane in which he literally didn’t touch the man, you have to ask questions. I will say it has been a bit better of late with regards Saka, and when asked about this earlier in the season, part of Mikel Arteta’s solution was to modify the way he is given the ball. We have minimised the amount of times he is fed with his back completely to the defender, which then makes it difficult for that defender to steam through him with impunity.

It’s not always possible though, and the incident I mentioned in the Villa game was one of those. The ball broke, the defender caught him, it should have been a free kick. A simple decision. Nobody’s asking for the player to be sent to Siberia, these things happen, but letting them go without anything at all just emboldens players to be more physical. At some point, one of these crunchers on Saka – one of England’s best players – is going to really damage him, and every Arsenal fan will say ‘We told you this was going to happen’.

Asked about it afterwards, Arteta said:

He got kicked quite a lot again, but he’s going to have to deal with that, not every week, but every three days. Sometimes in training as well. It’s his game – teams are not stupid and they want to stop him. We need to protect him.

And asked if he needs more protection from the officials, he said:

We will discuss that. We will look at the images again and report it if it’s necessary.

Please report it. This is an ongoing issue and given Saka’s ever-increasing importance to this team, it’s hard not to worry. I realise that it is the nature of the beast to an extent, Saka is hardly the only skillful attacking player to be on the end of challenges that range from desperate to deliberate to try and stop him, but when he’s kicked from pillar to post then roundly booed for it by the opposition fans, the ingredients are there for the referees to bake their cake of nothingness and inaction week in, week out.

It happens in the Premier League. It happened in the Europa League. It happened at the World Cup. As I said above, I was happy to see Saka let the opposition know he wasn’t going to take it, and I was just as happy to see the Arsenal players have his back straight away.

No doubt that will lead to yet another FA charge for failing to control our players (we’ve had more charges for that this season than Sp*rs have had trophies in the last 60 years), but if Saka isn’t getting any protection from the officials, then his teammates can do their bit. He had the last laugh this weekend, his glorious goal contributing to an Arsenal win, but there’s an inequality in officiating terms which is both obvious and problematic. If the club can do their bit to highlight that, even privately, then I think they need to do that. It’s not asking for special treatment, it’s just about fairness.

Only the England captain gets special treatment.

Right, that’s it for now. James and I will be recording an Arsecast Extra for you later on 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.

We should have the podcast for you around lunchtime. Until then.

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