Over the last couple of days, there has been an extraordinary backlash from Arsene Wenger to both the media and teams who seek to outmuscle his side. Speaking yesterday, he said:
“For me, you need to have more courage to play football when you know somebody is tackling you from behind without any intention to play the ball, with only one intention to hurt you. All the players have been injured deliberately.”
There is a very valid point in all this, but unfortunately the wording is so strong that all the media focus has been on the accusation that Stoke set out to deliberately cripple the players, which plainly isn’t the case. That they deliberately fouled at times, however, is undeniable.
A better phrase would’ve been ‘deliberately fouled which has led to injuries’ rather than ‘deliberately injured’. An example is the Delap foul on Walcott, and for an even better example, Carew’s awful challenge on Hleb last season. On both occasions, the ‘tackler’ has been running behind the player, with their opponent racing away into the distance. With the player three feet away and the ball six, going to ground and fouling is a calculated and cynical action.
And it happens a lot. Some managers dress it up as ‘slowing the game down’, or ‘taking a yellow card for the team’, and many pundits think it a good idea. Witness the aftermath of Walcott’s mazy run against Liverpool last season – after the match the ITV analysts were in unanimous agreement that Walcott should’ve been hacked down. This is the real problem, and this is the valid point that is lost amongst Wenger’s anger.
He is wrong on a couple of counts, however. Firstly, these pundits have their standard line that ‘Arsenal don’t like it up ’em’, and as already seen they even endorse the cynical foul for the sake of the team, so they’re hardly going to condemn what is a real problem. So Wenger is wrong if he thinks anyone outside Arsenal and their fanbase actually cares.
Secondly, coming after a loss to Stoke his timing is horrible. Stoke are by no means the worst offenders, and complaining at this time makes it all look like sour grapes, and point that has already been pounced on. Much better to raise the issue during a good run, perhaps in Ferguson-style by timing it before a physical game, to raise the debate without people accusing him of bitterness.
There is a chance that he is deflecting media attention to himself to protect his team, but to be honest it seems that he really believes in what he is saying. It must be frustrating as a manager to see your players hurt by these challenges, which actually don’t have any intention of winning the ball, but his complaints are going to fall on deaf ears.
Even with a real point to make, this is just giving the media more ammunition.