Bayern’s penalty against Arsenal highlights need for video refereeing

There was a moment in the Arsenal-Bayern second leg that revealed the injustice caused by UEFA’s continuing reluctance to turn to video technology. At 1-0 to Arsenal, and with the possibility of a comeback at least not entirely snuffed out, Robert Lewandowski broke through the Arsenal defence, inducing Laurent Koscielny into a foul that led to a red card for Arsenal, a penalty for Bayern Munich, and the extinguishing of the tie. None of this would be controversial if it were not for the fact that Lewandowski’s superior instinct as a forward had caused the official to misjudge one of the many moments in which he appears either on or just behind the offside line, or even to be on both simultaneously. It is part of Lewandowki’s skill as a forward to make that line appear so slim as to be non-existent; it is the thankless task of the official to judge whether his foot was millimetres ahed or millimetres behind the line.

However, UEFA cannot be exonerated from blame in the same way. For too long they have placed a disproportionate weight on the “human element” and the “flow” of the game, while ignoring the consequences of these inevitable misjudgements  by their officials. In a game as finely balanced as football, the right call in that circumstances would have maintained Arsenal’s slim hopes; one more goal would have ignited them just as the same time as it panicked Bayern. Football is a game of fine margins, but these margins must arise from the game itself, and replaced by ones created by refereeing errors that UEFA can avoid through the judicious use of video technology.

This task is made even more urgent by the style of play of the best centre forwards in the world. Lewandowksi’s natural tendency to time runs that start from the extreme shoulder of the last man at the very last minute possible increases the likelihood of him being offside at the same time as it makes it difficult for officials to call it correctly. Add to this his prowess as a goalscorer, and you have the threat of games being decided unfairly, with all the consequences that can entail, rather than one in which defenders are rewarded for knowing that half an inch of his boot has overstepped the line.

Southgate’s diagnosis of England’s woes misses the mark

It was baffling, and slightly wearying, to hear the latest opinion by an England manager on why England consistently fail to perform with any sort of cohesive identity in international football. For Southgate, the problem lies in England’s “small-island mentality”, which seems to suggest he thinks they are prone to lacking a certain hardened edge to them that is required to compete with the best in the big tournaments. However, it is worrying that an England manager once again seems unable or unwilling to voice the truth that England’s play reveals deeper structural problems in their national football culture than simply the wrong attitude. For in the way England consistently fail to bring out the best in players who fit in so seamlessly in their multinational club teams, in the manner in which their players seem to resort to the hoof and hit-it long ball tactics that are symptomatic of a team with no real long-term plan of how to train and play, the players reveal that the problem begins in the clubs themselves. Whereas Spain and Germany prioritise their nationals, allowing them fair chances to make it into the youth levels of elite clubs, and thereby to carry a certain style of play from the school-grounds to the national team, English clubs increasingly block places at the top in favour of foreign talent as part of their search for any edge over their rivals. English players who make it at that level are then exposed to continental styles of play in which they thrive, but the crucial thread from the tributaries of the talent pool to the beating heart of English football has been lost. The chance to create an inner language of football connected to the way the game is played at all levels across the country, like the Spanish have done with their superior technique or the Germans have most recently and impressively done by revamping their system after the 2006 World Cup, is lost. The players who come into the national team appear as foreigners disconnected by any congruent national style and lack the know-how to create a certain style of play on the hoof.

If England consistently focus on pressure, or the attitude of the players, they will miss the way their national culture of football is being eroded by the commercial juggernaut of the Premier League. The disconnect between the FA and the Premier League lies at the heart of England’s problems, and is merely another aspect of the stifling impact the money in football is having on the organic enthusiasm for the game. If there are fewer opportunities to make it at the top-end of English football, where the money is greatest, it may be that teenagers and young children eventually turn away from a career in the lower leagues in favour of something more financially attractive. The earlier young children turn away from football, the sooner the next generation will do the same as the tradition of playing football is slowly eroded. This is what English football faces and what must be arrested if the enthusiasm of English fans and infectious love of football in that country is still valued enough by those in charge not to let it wither away.

Oliver’s refereeing hits the bull’s eye

Michael Oliver’s swift and firm reaction to Ander Herrera’s provocative second challenge on Eden Hazard, just moments after he had made clear his disapproval of such tactics to the United captain, was laudatory and must not be allowed to come to be seen as a mistake in hindsight. Oliver’s decision was brave in how early he was prepared to issue a red card to deal with the injustice of a team whose conscious tactic was to repeatedly foul and intimidate Eden Hazard, and nor must the characteristic bard delivered in the guise of innocence by Jose Mourinho be allowed to deter Oliver from acting in such a principled way in the future. At the current rate, he is well on his way to becoming one of the finest referees the English Premier League has had in quite a while, for his refusal to fold in taking big decisions and consistent accuracy in getting them right. For too long now, games have been marred by a combination of appalling refereeing and a tendency for players to treat fair play as nothing more than a slogan. Examples that flit to the mind range from present and past, including Luis Suarez’s recent dive for Barcelona’s crucial fifth goal against PSG to Wayne Rooney’s similar dive in front of an impassioned Old Trafford crowd against Arsenal a few seasons ago, to the deliberate manhandling of Jose Antonio Reyes by a United led by Roy Keane in the heat of the Ferguson years. Far from letting such incidents be characterised as cunning or gladiatorial sport at its finest, Oliver’s refereeing shows a satisfying determination to reveal it for what it really is: cynical cheating that is far from the heroic virtues English football tricks itself into believing it possesses. Given how hard it can be to make such hard decisions, as could be seen by the way the United players physically ganged up on Oliver after he issued the red to Herrera and by how Jose Mourinho publically highlighted his record of issuing (just) penalties and red cards against United this season after the match, Oliver’s willingness to make the right calls appears even more praiseworthy and brave.

The decision was also no more than Jose Mourinho deserved – not only for the nakedly cynical part of his strategy of fouling Hazard, but also for his persistence with his habit of choosing ultra-safe game plans in big games despite the players at his disposal before revelling in the praise showered on him afterwards for his winning habit. Rather than show him as a mercurial, dashing winner with a touch of gold, such continued decisions in big games reveal his character by the way they sacrifice all efforts to create a spectacle in favour of the one-upmanship of the final result. There is also an argument that this is not just the pragmatic tactics of a man who is nonetheless deeply versed in the inner language of the game, and what it means to be a key protagonist in it, but of one who instead occasionally treats football as some kind of conduit to an ongoing spectacle that revolves around him. The red card in this way served as a further satisfying rebuke to Mourinho’s ceaseless antagonism, both how he offered a wry grin straight after the red card and by the bad blood he had created before the fixture in targeting Antonio Conte.

Lest this article come across as entirely critical of Mourinho, however, two caveats must be added. The first is that Michael Cox has written a fascinatingly thought-provoking piece on how Mourinho’s tactics were designed to stop Conte – one that perhaps shows the other side to Mourinho’s big-game tactics, in which tactical preparation, psychology and execution are occasionally combined in hugely impressive fashion. The other is that Mourinho’s comments quite obviously got under the skin of Conte, whose Latin temperament never inspired confidence that his attempt to deflect his barbs would be successful, and which made you wonder whether gamesmanship would triumph over hard-fought success. However, the pre-match backdrop then came to life in gloriously compelling fashion during the match as Conte squared up to Mourinho and perhaps offered the latter a sense that he was beginning to meet his match. The dollop of genuine antipathy was enjoyable to savour and, as long as it doesn’t overheat into the naked and puerile insults that characterised the Mourinho-Guardiola rivalry in Spain, may add a refreshing authenticity to the battles of the Premier League in the future.

Staggered fixtures dull Premier League joy

It has been noticeable over the years how increasingly Premier League games are staggered across the week, presumably as part of the commercial dictates behind the sport. It was already stretching the tolerance of the fans to first divide games between Saturdays and Sundays; but to now divide them across as many as five days of a week, with some on Monday, some on Wednesday, and some not occurring at all, strips the competition of its intensity and makes it hard to follow with any sustained interest. It was news, but not surprising, to hear that Man City had a Premier League game the other day when none of their rivals seemed to have a game at all on that week. Beyond the immediate disorienting effects on fans, there is the loss of a more intangible quality that was associated with the traditional league kick-off time of 3pm on a Saturday and hearkened back to a time when the commercial growth of football did not yet stretch the patience of its fans with gimmicks and over-saturation that dulled the joy of the game. It is perhaps this sense of overload and fatiguing ever-presence of football content which has spurred fans to lose their sense of perspective between football and life, pleasure and work.

Reply to Ian Herbert on Wenger

Ian Herbert recently wrote an article on the Arsenal-Wenger situation, in which he joined the growing number of writers who seem to view the current state of the club as one of crisis presided over by Wenger:

http://www.independent.co.uk/sport/football/premier-league/arsenals-majority-shareholder-stan-kroenke-more-motivated-by-money-a7619426.html#commentsDiv

I’m slightly shocked by the rapidity with which respectable, balanced football writers are turning on Wenger and striking the same notes as many of the “Wenger Out” brigade. Why have none of them pointed out that there are two ways to view Wenger’s current situation? One is that he is dragging the club inexorably towards professional mediocrity and unrealised ambition; the other is that he at most guilty of a certain tactical stagnation, but that this current dip is a small price to pay next to the long-term financial stability and professional consistency he has brought. Above all in this view is the acknowledgement that his many years of service and contributions to the game deserve a special view to be taken of his “failures”, in which the club and its fans stick by him longer than at other clubs in recognition of how much he has become part of the same emotional journey they are on. The acknowledgement of the possibility of a new story here, in which narratives and inspiring figures are not sacrificed on the altar of a cut-throat professional competition that prides short-termism and financial delusion over all other values, would be gratefully received if voiced by football writers.

Wenger badly let down by his players

It is often said that the best way to deal with an emotional setback is to talk or write about it. Talking or writing is meant to be therapeutic, and if so, it is a measure of the pain caused by Arsenal’s defeat that I immediately felt the urge to write about it in its aftermath. By delaying that process for a while longer, I only found my repressed emotions about the match had a knock-on effect on other little things that impact one’s mood throughout the day.

Nor is there any cause on this occasion for non-football fans to scorn at the oft-justified lack of perspective that us fans can display about a win or a loss. This loss was about more than a simple match; it was about one man’s legacy, the shame in seeing a fine oeuvre unjustifiably sacrificed by the brittleness of his players, and the pain of knowing it all seems to be heading towards a very unhappy end. Arsene Wenger is no ordinary manager, and just as he is held to a seemingly impossible standard in comparison with managers who have trodden a more familiar career path, so the pain caused by seeing his career come to the type of end suffered by so many in this profession is also unique.

The performance encapsulated the promise and bitter failure of so many post-2006 performances: a rousing first 48 minutes in which Arsenal looked every inch a team with the right balance between flair, steel and cunning, followed by the rest of the second half in which they characteristically threw away all their good work in stunningly naïve fashion. Not even on a school pitch would you see players perform as abjectly as Wenger’s did for him in the moments after Bayern went 2-1 up.

The sense of Wenger as martyr is increased by signs all around him of the necessary, functional ingredients other teams enjoying success have which, for practical or principled reasons, he has been unable or unwilling to acquire. For all their class, Bayern Munich are essentially an unimaginative football team who owe their success to the sense of entitlement that money can buy. While Wenger was being assailed by his fans yet again for lacking tactical nous, Carlo Ancelotti could get away with the respect of football fans the world over despite fielding the same 4-2-3-1 formation Wenger is derided for and owing his champions league trophies (another thing Wenger is derided for) to working with the most brilliant players of their respective periods. Bayern’s arrogance in victory yesterday underlined a sense of entitlement born of riches and access to the best players, which merely heightens the frustration that Arsenal – a team that, despite all their problems, still carried the unique Wenger stamp of free flowing football in patches yesterday – could not be a more consistent match for them and thereby stand in stark contrast as a standard-bearer for the best qualities in football. If Bayern represent the mechanised evolution of football in the era of pressing and mammoth clubs, Wenger’s failure to adapt has at least preserved Arsenal’s status as a club trying to do things the right way on the pitch, committed to a strategy that others would deem foolhardy. For Wenger undoubtedly manages players with lesser talent than many of his opponents; for all the claims that Arsenal match up on paper to the best in the Premier League, they are far below what Chelsea or Bayern can boast.

In this age of mechanised football, it is impossible to totally rule out the suspicion that Wenger is missing one more ingredient which has distanced the gap between Arsenal and the rest: drugs. The stats will show Bayern ran as much as Arsenal yesterday, but Arsenal consistently look outpaced and slower in 50-50 challenges compared to their immediate rivals (not to mention suffering injuries on a far more believably human level than the Clark Kents at other clubs). While giving football the benefit of the doubt, the history in German football of doping, the lack of thorough testing in football, and the history of other sports means it would be foolish to take everything we see at face value.
For all these reasons – finances, the players at his disposal, the injuries he has suffered and, above all, the manager he has been and the man he is – there is no way this blog will come even close to adding to the vitriol now being poured on his head.

Instead, the fans should turn their attention to the players towards whom he has only been guilty of one fault: affording them his trust and patience for too long. The manner in which they collapsed yesterday made it clear that it did not directly emanate from the dressing room, in the sense of tactical misdirection, but rather from a childlike inability to deal with the disappointment of going a goal down in the second half. From that moment on, Arsenal played with a callowness that is unbecoming of professional players and indicative of a subconscious complacency which has taken advantage of the loyalty of their manager. From the time that Flamini left for AC Milan, Arsenal players have shown a selfish disregard for the idealism and vision of their manager to create a unique project at Arsenal. This applies to the dumpers like Fabregas, Nasri and Van Persie and, perhaps on a lesser scale, to those who have not developed to the level which would have been expected of them by now, and even to those such as Sanchez who have sometimes shown a tendency to hog the ball on the pitch in a manner antithetical to Wenger’s vision of dazzling, collective attacks. The sense now that he is approaching the end on his own, with a storm raging all around him, is galling to those to whom he has meant so much over the years.

The Beauty of Ozil

Of the many myopic views seizing the airwaves in the narcissistic culture that surrounds football these days, none is more misplaced and dangerous than the ceaseless scapegoating of Mesut Ozil. For in continually hanging him out to dry for no other reason than a lack of originality and desire to be heard, football fans and pundits alike are threatening to bury the rare joy of what Ozil brings to the game. Ozil represents the game’s most precious qualities: a blessed mix of vision, technique and intelligence. Every pass and movement he makes reveals him to be one step ahead of the opposition; every failure on his part to find a player or control the ball normally means his team-mates are not quite at his level. So it is galling to find that there are those who believe the sole measure of Ozil’s game must be how much he is prepared to run after the opposition without the ball, like some sort of expensive breed of dog that was brought in merely to be run into the ground. Admittedly, Ozil’s unique gift does not extend to seizing a game by the scruff of its neck and dictating in the manner of Cesc Fabregas or David Silva; but if a team can adapt itself to his game, he promises both successful results and performances adorned with a grace even the formerly-mentioned players cannot quite replicate.

The scapegoating of Ozil is part of a wider trend in Premier League football that has prioritised athletic prowess and pressing at the expense of creativity and improvisation. Look no further than the slow corralling of David Silva at Manchester City, the inability to appreciate the gifts of Sergio Aguero and Cesc Fabregas, and of course, the baying for blood by Arsenal fans towards Mesut Ozil. While the tactical insights brought in by Pep Guardiola and Antonio Conte are undoubtedly impressive, there is something that causes one to pause for thought when their plans cannot accommodate nor adapt themselves to the gifts of players who inspire children to follow the game in the first place. If a manager cannot appreciate the gifts of one of the purest, predatory strikers the game has seen in Aguero, is he perhaps guilty of the charge that his ideas have warped him to the fundamental managerial task of enhancing the beautiful game? If the fans applaud a player like Alexis Sanchez for tracking back yet turn a blind eye to the way his dalliance on the ball kills space, are they ignorant to the beating heart of football itself? The beauty of football lies in the rapid, improvised exploitation of space by players gifted with phenomenal speed of thought, vision and technique, at least as much as in the pre-meditated, collective, tactical rehearsal that prizes athleticism over those former qualities.

In the heated atmosphere of Youtube fan channels and 24/7 punditry, players and pundits alike project more of their frustrated idea of what the game should be onto managers and players (the primary protagonists). Yes, our world is about themes such as competition and “heart”, but one can’t help feeling that the constant resort to such platitudes on football airwaves (and via Facebook memes) has twisted our ideals to the point where it is impossible to appreciate the finest qualities of the game. Simply put, Ozil must be protected and his role preserved rather than adapted for the necessities of short-termism and whimsical competitive urges. The game is about competition, but it is also about art and beauty and there is no-one who quite personifies that like the sensitive, intelligent German-Turkish no.10 at Arsenal.