Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Wednesday November 5 2008
There are two very, very frustrating media clichés that surround our football club in the modern era, both inextricably linked. The first is that we are somehow destroying the English game with our insistence on technically superior foreign players. The second is that "Arsenal don`t like it up 'em." The public in general being the imbeciles they are lap up both with Pavlovian quiescence. So when Arsene Wenger lost three players to injury at Stoke this Saturday following heavy tackles and had the temerity to complain about it, you just knew we were in for the extended radio edit of "Whingeing Wenger is a sore loser" followed by three verses of "the Gunners can`t handle the rough stuff."
Of course the statistics show that Arsenal finished the game on Saturday with an 85% tackle success rate and that we won more challenges than Stoke managed in the game. Statistics also show that Bacary Sagna, Emmanuel Adebayor and Theo Walcott all left the match on a stretcher, something which caused Wenger to become incandescent with rage in his Tuesday press conference,
'I read that my team were not brave.
'All I can say is they are brave and, for me, you need to have more courage to play football when you know that someone is tackling you from behind without any intention to play the ball.
'The only intention is to hurt you and I can show some tackles where I can prove what I say. The one who is tackling is not the brave one. For me the brave one is the player who is trying to play football.
'It happened at the weekend. Do you think Delap tried to play the ball when he tackled Walcott? Or that Shawcross tried to play the ball when he tackled Adebayor off the pitch. All the players have been injured deliberately."
The naysayers will dismiss this as idle whingeing, but he has a point doesn`t he? I am willing to accept that the tackle that took Sagna out of the game was an accident, in fact, I think the Stoke player got the ball and Banger fell awkwardly. Certainly no free kick was awarded. However, Delap quite deliberately kicked Walcott out of the game. Shawcross` challenge in particular was, as the manager points out, cowardly. The ball was already out of play when Shawcross raked his studs down the back of Adebayor`s calf. This was not sheer momentum; the ball had crossed the line before Shawcross committed to the tackle from behind, the injury was exacerbated by the fact that Ade was not braced for impact. Wenger is not wrong to point this out at all, he has not intimated that this is the reason we lost the game, and it wasn`t. As evidenced by Wenger`s contrite assessment in the immediate aftermath,
"Stoke played to their strengths better than we did and deserved to win."
But it is simply lacking in objectivity to suggest that Arsenal need to learn how to handle such roughhousing. The statistics showed we could do that in the parameters of the game (dealing with the long throw ins and showing imagination in the final third were things we demonstratably failed to do on Saturday). How can anyone legislate for being hacked down from behind and injured? It is not a case of being mentally or physically tough; one cannot circumnavigate such a tactic. It`s like asking a dead fish not to get eaten. The manager is also quite correct to dismiss the notion that raking your studs down the back of somebody`s achilles is somehow an example of brave, combative play,
'I am not ready to listen to things that are completely untrue and make people who are cowards, for me, look brave.'
However, while the manager`s comments were absolutely correct (both demonstratably and statistically), one must question his reasons for this splenetic outburst and whether those reasons are sound. (Although one might reasonably argue that van Persie`s challenge on Sorensen, whilst not career threatening, hardly screamed bravery). One could deduce that Wenger is playing a clever mind game. Firstly, with the visit of a United side to chez Emirates on Saturday in mind. Ferguson`s charges have hardly been shy of dishing out a bit of the old ultra violence in past encounters and the manager might just be planting a seed in the mind of the officials that Arsenal are typically targeted by sharpened studs and reared elbows. Le Boss could be hoping that this works on the referee on a subconscious level when the ever lovable Paul Scholes raises his studs in earnest, causing his opponent to hobble off gingerly. (Couldn`t resist).
He could also be exercising the old Mourinho trick of attracting the focus away from his diffident players and onto himself. Wenger knows how the press work in this country and he will be fully aware that his plea for sympathy will likely fall on unreceptive auricles. The team have come in for a hailstorm of criticism from all and sundry of late and the manager might just be deliberately tempting the flies away from the honey and towards the vinegar. However, there is one comment that troubles me slightly from his diatribe,
'We lost a game but we are six points behind the leaders, it is the start of November and we have plenty of quality to get it back. The same people who say we are not good, let them say it in three weeks when we are the best.'
When read at the end of the transcript, one shifts from the impression of a man looking to surreptitiously foster a siege mentality in his squad to a desperate man who is showing signs of pressure and strain. That comment sounds more like frustrated denial than exuberance or confidence and it shifts the perspective somewhat. It`s a pregnant promise that could well look very silly in three weeks time. How his press conference overall will be viewed by us, is probably not important. What is important is how his players view it. Will they see it as the arch protector showing a paternal belief in his band of child stars and draw strength from that? Or will they see it as a man displaying a father`s blindness and an unbecoming frustration that things simply are not going his way? As ever, mistress time will likely reveal all.LD.
Date:Wednesday November 5 2008
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